Saturday, June 18, 2011
The Holy Modal Rounders - The Holy Modal Rounders
Though it later swelled in its later-60's incarnations, the Rounders started as a duo--Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel (with whom I'm proud to say I'm facebook friends), who were highly active in the NYC folk revival of the early 60's and were also involved in The Fugs. That association alone might give you a pretty good clue as to the Rounders' approach to folk music--irreverance abounds as Weber (guitar) and Stampfel (fiddle, banjo) trade vocals in ridiculous voices (Weber's got the sort of wheezy one and Stampfel's the nasaly one) across a selection of Rounders-arranged traditional folk tunes like the classic "The Cuckoo," "Same Old Man," "Give the Fiddler A Dram" and "Bound to Lose." As folk musicians are wont to do, the pair not only arrange the songs with a number of comic flourishes, they also mess around with some of the lines to make the songs their own. Although the arrangements are simple, they're subtle--Weber's guitar forms the framework for many of the songs, like "Blues in the Bottle," where he lays down the guitar foundation and Stampfel's fiddle periodically appears to lend its scratchy warmth to the melodic refrain--much more effective than if it were played for the song's entirety.
What really sets this album above the standard folk fare (especially the kind of contrived anachronistic old-timey stuff that a lot of today's folk revivalists are into) are the excellent handful of original songs peppered throughout the collection--the fantastic "Hesitation Blues," which just might feature the first recorded use of the word "psych-o-delic" (as the band says it) and some subtle harmony vocals. And then there's the hilarious nonsense and onomatopoeia of "Mr. Spaceman," and the druggy glory of "Euphoria" [Update 2/20/12: I'm told "Hesitation Blues" actually isn't an original tune but an update of a song recorded earlier by Crying Sam Collins, thanks Mel!] The duo manage to adapt their original tunes to their folk style with traditional-sounding melodies and the most important ingredient of folk music--collective fun. If only they'd broken beyond cult status, perhaps more of today's folkies would be playing their own versions of Rounders' originals. As it stands, this album is a great time and a shot in the arm for what's sometimes a pretty musty genre.
You can get it on CD here, along with their enjoyable but not quite as sparkling second album.