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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/8/2012)
We noted in our year-end observations for 2011 the growing number of groups who are drawing for their inspiration upon pre-rock influences, from swing to traditional folk to vaudeville, cabaret and British music hall. It is a trend that has been around for a while, enjoying some popularity with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and others, but it seems that more groups than ever are going deep retro as an alternative to now-mainstream music that used to be alternative.
This week, we have the latest release by a group that has also drawn upon pre-rock styles, but has always done it in an eclectic way, The Wiyos, whose new CD is called Twist. The title turns out to be appropriate, as we shall hear.
The Wiyos were founded and remain based in Brooklyn, NY, and took their name from a notorious Irish gang that operated in New York in the 1890s. The band came about almost by accident when Michael Farkas ran into Parrish Ellis at a bar in 2002. Farkas had a harmonica, Ellis a guitar, and a day later, they launched a band at the famous CBGBs in New York, adding acoustic bassist Joseph DeJarnette and multi-instrumentalist Teddy Weber. They toured all over in a rickety bus, went to New Orleans and busked on the streets for a while. They began to develop a reputation, often by turning up unexpectedly at music industry conferences and playing in hallways and lobbies. They began to pick up gigs in Europe and the BBC featured the Wiyos in a television documentary on American roots music in 2009. Also that year, the group released their fourth CD Broken Land Bell which we featured on this album review series, and they were invited to perform as the opening act on a Bob Dylan tour.
Since then, the Wiyos have had some personnel changes, with founding members Parrish Ellis and Joseph DeJarnette departing. Farkas and Weber spent a while regrouping, adding "Sauerkraut" Seth Travins on bass, working out new material and doing little touring. One of the things that they did do was serve as the pit orchestra for a Kansas dance production based on the Wizard of Oz, called the Wiyos of Oz. Inspired by that, the revised Wiyos began work on a concept album rather loosely based on the "Wizard of Oz," with, according to the band's publicity, some additional inspiration from Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey." A biographer of "Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum wrote the CD's liner notes.
One of the things that gave the Wiyos a particularly distinctive sound on previous recordings was the so-called "human beat box" verbal percussion as performed by Adam Matta. Matta does appear on Twist but a bit less frequently. Also a part of this recording is multi-instrumentalist Kenny Siegal, who co produced the CD with the band. Despite the personnel changes, the result is entertainingly eclectic, sometimes jumping within one tune to vaudeville to rock to bossa nova and back. And the lyrics are also quite interesting, often revolving around the characters and situations from the "The Wizard of Oz." But if you are looking for hints of the music from the famous Judy Garland movie, you're not going to find that part.
The CD opens with a track called Yellow Lines, suggestive of the yellow brick road of the Wizard of Oz. Musically it's typical of the sound of the Wiyos on the group's previous albums, with hints of older music, mixed up in creative ways. <<>>
One of two rather different tracks called Scarecrow draws on one of Oz's characters in a way that's more impressionistic than in keeping with the story's plot. <<>>
Tinman is one of the most eclectic on the CD. So-called human beatbox Adam Matta makes an appearance in this very creative track that hints at Latin American dance and quite a few other unrelated styles. <<>>
Also quite high in an index of eclecticism is Mary, which also draws on some Latin American influence with the help of the verbal percussion of Adam Matta. <<>>
Taking something of a detour in subject matter is a track called Mama, which sounds like a kind of mutant vaudeville revue with some Tom Waits thrown in. <<>>
The Wiyos get back to their interesting Americana mix from their previous work on Farewell Weather Bird, which manages to throw in some lyrics set in the contemporary period. <<>>
The other scarecrow-related tune, called, appropriately Scarecrow 2 is quite different from the first. This one is another crazy amalgam with a stronger rock beat, occasionally reminiscent of the music of Captain Beefheart. <<>>
The other familiar "Wizard of Oz" character is given a song, appropriately called The Lion. This lion is a hypochondriac. <<>>
The CD ends with Home (The Ballad) a mellow musical postscript to the story. <<>>
Twist the new sixth album by the Wiyos is a fascinating and quite entertaining recording by an ever-more creative band. After the departure of two of their founding members two years ago, they regrouped, got even more musically eclectic and created their first full concept album, taking on "The Wizard of Oz" and going to some rather unexpected places. They mix Americana elements of blues, and folk music, along with hints of pre-rock influences from vaudeville and cabaret and throwing in occasional rock instrumentation, plus hints of the hip-hop rhythmic approach as performed with verbal percussion. They result is music that's pretty hard to describe and thoroughly original. The musicianship is impressive and they often go in for three-part vocal harmonies.
Our grade for audio quality is an "A-minus." The mix captures the wide-ranging sound of the band and its various instruments generally well, including parts where the lead vocal is sung through a megaphone. But as is so often the case, in the mindless quest for maximum loudness, the CD was mastered with heavy-handed compression that sucked a lot of the dynamics out of the band's performance.
There are a lot of groups getting into pre-rock retro these days, many of them, it seems, with female lead vocals. With their Twist on "The Wizard of Oz," on their new CD, The Wiyos have taken that concept to a new creative level.
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