The Tango Saloon: The Tango Saloon

[4 August 2006]

By Mark W. Adams

You can count on Ipecac’s unpredictability.  While this Mike Patton-curated label does feature some general genre cohesion—loud rock and experimental music—the most common glue is a sense of capriciousness.  In Ipecac’s disjointed world, visceral metal (Melvins, Tomahawk) fights for attention with chaotic avant-jazz (Flat Earth Society), while singer-songwriter-sound-sculptors (Mugison, Yoshimi & Yuka) attempt to smooth things over.  Ipecac’s roster is not only stylistically diverse.  Its signees are also all over the map, with the above-mentioned artists hailing from Austria, Iceland, and Japan, as well as from the label’s home in the U.S.A.

Within this gross geographic genre-hopping, one might raise concerns over clarity, purpose and intent.  Is Ipecac’s amorphousness just eclecticism for eclecticisms’ sake?  I reckon the answer depends on your tolerance for a label that is named after an emetic, sports the tagline “Making People Sick Since 1999”, and wishes to “purge you of the drek that’s been rotting in your tummies”.

Don’t tell the label’s hardcore, tattooed Melvins-lovers, but I’ve found Ipecac’s curative, its Pepto Bismol: The Tango Saloon actually coats, soothes, and relieves.  And dare I say that The Tango Saloon is one of the most “listenable” of Ipecac’s recent releases?  An ensemble of 15 musicians headed by Sydney’s Julian Corwin, The Tango Saloon brings the tango to Ipecac.  But that’s not all.  This self-titled release is as much about Morricone as Piazzolla, and is as textured as the Melvins are loud and abrasive. 

You’d expect the descriptor cinematic to be applicable here, and the term certainly fits.  The album also evokes a majestic and wide-screened collision between jazz, experimental, and ethnic folk music.  An assemblage of brass, strings, and percussion create instrumental soundscapes that are as fitting for dancing as for gunfight scenes—sometimes even within the same song.  The eight-minute “Man with the Bongos” begins as if it could easily accompany a James Bond stalking sequence before melting into an Ennio Morricone western movie theme.  Starting with a loping and disgustingly fat bassline, electronic flourishes punctuate occasional horn squalls before the song takes a dramatic turn with tremolo guitar and marching handclaps that then merge into an almost-free-jazz-freakout.  It’s simultaneously exhausting and engaging, an album highlight. 

Other songs cover less stylistic ground, but are just as charming.  The accordion features prominently throughout The Tango Saloon, and gives “The Tango Saloon 1” an Eastern European flair and spaciousness reminiscent of the Tin Hat Trio.  In contrast, “The Tango Saloon 2” creates a dense and foreboding atmosphere with a violin, accordion, and a marching drumbeat, interspersed by measures of gypsy folk.  Wait for the final minute, when the two sounds merge into something quite majestic.

If this all sounds too serious, note the cartoonish quality of “March of the Big Shoe”, which has a sense of playfulness that wouldn’t be out of place on a Carl Stalling or Raymond Scott compilation.  The tuba can always be trusted to add just the right amount of silliness, yes?  Precocious “The Little Plane That Could” features a tinkling xylophone and a carnival-esque Rhodes texture, although it fails compositionally.  After four and a half minutes, it seems that little plane never actually does
Homage to Piazzolla is paid in the form of two covers.  “Libertango” features the albums’ only lyrics and its straightest tango, while trumpet and piano are paired in the minute-long vignette “Scusi”.  Meanwhile, original closer “Still I Cannot Do the Tango” offers a lyrical viola and strummed acoustic guitar, and balances a fine line between gypsy jazz and a tango that dances with classical chamber music. 

By employing the basic Morricone-Piazzolla framework, The Tango Saloon find a useful canvas with which to paint vibrant and lively experimental music.  There are, however, moments within these 14 tracks over 60 minutes when the experimental strokes are applied too liberally.  Take, for instance, “Carol”, with its five pensive and meandering minutes, or “Upon a Time”, which attempts to balance a cabaret folk mentality while pushing the boundaries of experimental composition.  The song’s abrupt pauses and time-signature changes cause to listener’s head to spin in both an amazed and unsettling way.  Qualities which, come to think of it, make this album a very appropriate addition to the ranks of Ipecac.

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