Willard Grant Conspiracy & Telefunk: In the Fishtank (Fish Eight)
This album is best explained by first returning to the general idea itself. This Dutch label has created a series of short length discs that brings together local Dutch bands with similar sounding and style groups better known to the outside world. The goal is to have the local Dutch band record with these groups while these groups are touring Holland. "These bands are given two days to put down on 24 tracks 20 to 30 minutes of whatever they like: regular songs, funny versions, improvised pieces . . ." says the liner notes on the disc. The members of Telefunk, two of whom were previously members of the Dutch band Cords, had met Willard Grant Conspiracy lead singer Robert Fisher while Fisher produced two of the group's albums. The end result is an eclectic and enthusiastic mesh and meld of traditional folk with hip-hop and ambient beats.
For the first time in the collection's history, the material was rehearsed prior to going to tape and although perhaps slightly rehashed in its formula, the sound's crispness and liveliness is fresh and raw at times. It was agreed before staring out that the songs wouldn't be from either group's repertoire, but rather covers and traditional tunes, some of which aren't from this century or the previous one. "Twistification" is the opening track; with Robert Fisher sounding somewhere between the Handsome Family and a perverse Sigur Ros. The arrangement starts out sparse, picks up slightly in the middle with an orchestral feel, but concludes with more of the Daniel Lanois barrenness. While not exactly an auspicious start, one gets the feeling that it could end up a disappointing affair.
Fortunately, the subsequent song "Cuckoo" has much more of a "give and take" attitude emitting from it. Telefunk's lead singer Simone Pieters-Holsbeek adds a Nico-like sophistication to her small but important part. The song has an ambient feel to it, not pulsating like a dancehall beat, but along the lines of a front porch Portishead. There is also enough twang or alt.country substance within the song to keep it from becoming a parody of itself, or even worse, a possible Rednex ripoff (remember "Cotton Eye Joe"!). This quality is much more refined and polished on "Grun Grun", which consists of a more ambient/electronica beat, but the trading off of lyrics and mantra-like atmosphere between Pieters-Holsbeek and Fisher keeps the song from straying into a sonic wasteland. The upright bass as well as the simple plunking of the ivories hidden deep in the background is an added bonus.
Most remarkable about the disc is the ability for both groups to put the music ahead of any other agenda either group may have had. It isn't to say that Telefunk doesn't seize control at certain times, nor is the Willard Grant Conspiracy being a follower, for both groups tend to complement each other perfectly, despite the musical chasm between the two genres. This is perhaps best demonstrated on the lovely gospel-tinged ballad of "Near the Cross", a traditional hymn dating from circa 1869, or when people still spoke of Lincoln's assassination. Although far from any hint of electronica, Telefunk makes it's presence known in other, extremely subtle ways with a darker arrangement.
"Just a Little Rain" is Telefunk's most dominating song, with the electronica apparent in the backbeat, but the minimal accompaniment recalls the early Velvet Underground, particularly the upright bass sound throughout. It's also a song which is both depressing and pleasant simultaneously, another Velvets trademark. "Dig a Hole in the Meadow" is another strong tune about death and love lost, reminiscent of the Cowboy Junkies in their early heyday. The longest track of the half-dozen, the number tends to be more focused on the Americana feel with Fisher's soulful delivery becoming strained near the conclusion, but the backing harmonies keep it suspended in this nondescript territory. If there was one album that could be possibly deemed Americanica, then you've found it in this gem of an album and idea.