Those Darn Accordions: Squeeze Machine

Those Darn Accordions: Squeeze MachineWhat started as a lark — an accordion gang raiding San Francisco restaurants to play “Lady of Spain” — has turned into a very productive career for Those Darn Accordions. Their latest album, Squeeze Machine, continues the tradition of accordion rock and oddball humor that has made the band “America’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll accordion band” for more than 15 years.

The band has clearly evolved since the early days when they’d cram eight accordions on stage. Their older records leaned heavily on squeezebox-specific kitsch: songs about Lawrence Welk and all-accordion renditions of rock classics (often with octogenarian Clyde Forsman on vocals). But while the old TDA was an accordion band that played rock songs, the modern-day TDA is really a rock band that just happens to sport a few accordions. They’ve pared down the accordion lineup to four, turned the focus from covers to originals, and tightened up their sound.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: they’re still having a hell of a lot of fun. Lead singer/songwriter Paul Rogers populates the album with a cast of colorful characters, ranging from a disgruntled member of a Beatles tribute band (“This Song”), to a squabbling bicycling couple (“Tandem Bike”), and a Willy Loman-esque traveling salesman (“Wrinkle Suit”). Cleveland native (and new “Price is Right” host) Drew Carey even shows up to help renovate a house on “Glass of Beer Polka.”

Meanwhile, the band doesn’t stick to any one genre for long, trading rock ‘n’ roll for country hoedowns (“Heads and Horns”) and swing (“Cocktails in Tehran”) when the mood strikes. On some tracks, heavy wah-wah-like effects make you wonder if you’re actually listening to accordions at all. (You are.) And, of course, there are still a couple covers — AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and “It’s Now or Never” both get the TDA treatment. (Longtime fans may remember that a version of the latter appeared on the band’s first album, Vongole Fisarmonica, too.)

Squeeze Machine does an excellent job showcasing TDA‘s strengths: catchy, offbeat, high-energy, accordion-driven tunes. It’s tough to keep things fresh after 15 years, but Those Darn Accordions are clearly up to the challenge.

The Polish Diva’s Polka Party

The Polish Diva’s Polka PartyTerry Palasz isn’t your average polka singer. Classically trained with a powerful soprano, she puts a unique twist on traditional polka music with her album, The Polish Diva’s Polka Party. The album grew out of her one-woman show, The Polish Diva from Milwaukee, and she brings Broadway style to polka classics like “Who Stole the Keeshka?” and “Blue Skirt Waltz.” But she always respects her source material, putting the focus on the melodies and lyrics, and singing in English, Polish, German, and Slovenian.

While the singing is certainly the focus, there’s some quality musicianship here, too. Accordionist/arranger Toby Hanson of Seattle’s Smilin’ Scandinavians does an excellent job making the classics sound fresh, regardless of style. For me, the key to any polka recording is whether it’s fun — for both the performers and the listeners. From the soaring of Palasz’s voice to the rambunctious xylophone and trombone solos, it’s clear there’s plenty of fun going on at this polka party.

Listen to this clip, which features Palasz singing in Slovenian and some great accordion work from Toby Hanson:

They Might Be Giants: The Else

They Might Be Giants: The ElseJust a couple weeks ago, They Might Be Giants released their new album The Else bundled with a super special bonus disc called Cast your Pod to the Wind, which contains music previously released only on their podcasts. It’s no doubt They Might Be Giants is one of the hardest working (and prolific) rock bands out there; releasing the equivalent of two albums at the same time is an impressive feat!

I love both of these discs. Yes, I am a long time fan, but every song included is quintessentially They Might Be Giants. From Flansburgh’s energetic power-pop guitar hooks to Linnell’s cleverly written lyrics and meticulously orchestrated geek-rock, both discs are a fabulous collection of musical experiments. I’ve listened to it about 20 times over, and yet I continue to get “Aha!” moments when I catch a lyrical phrase with a double meaning or a clever melodic riff. I can’t help but think “These guys are geniuses!”

Although light on accordion solos, I think any musician would appreciate the vast array of other instruments and effects used to enhance this otherwise straight-forward rock album and bonus disc. It’s a must for dedicated fans, and a great ‘starter’ album for people less familiar with the band.

Return of the Gypsy Punks

Gogol Bordello: Super Taranta!The best description I’ve read of Gogol Bordello is that they’re “a bit like The Clash having a fight with The Pogues in Eastern Europe.” Their new album, Super Taranta!, is out today and features an even wilder mix of accordion-driven gypsy, punk, reggae, ska, flamenco, and dub than their previous efforts. Frontman Eugene Hutz explains the inspiration behind the new album:

Super Taranta! is our interpretation of tarantella, a ritual music from Italy… I saw a painting in Tuscany of a woman in convulsions and guy playing a violin. He’s leaning over her, playing music to cure her hysteria, put her into a trance and exorcize her demons. It was sexual, mystical and cultural, almost obscene — all the qualities of Gogol Bordello.”

Of course, Gogol Bordello’s reputation isn’t built on their recordings, but on their frenzied, sweaty live shows (which usually involve Eugene crowd-surfing on a bass drum). The band hits the East Coast later this week (check our calendar for dates) after making an impromptu appearance at last weekend’s Live Earth concert in London, adding some much-needed gypsy flair to Madonna’s set.

Elly Kelly’s Acadian Dance Party

Elly Kelly: Yesterday’s DreamBorn into an Acadian family in St. Charles, New Brunswick, Elly Kelly started playing accordion at the age of 13 and was soon joining her mother, father, and brother onstage at square dances, jamborees and talent shows. After taking time off to raise three children, Elly has returned to music with a lively album of reels and waltzes called Yesterday’s Dream.

The album opens with a nod to her musical roots — a high-spirited clip recorded by her parents at her childhood home more than 25 years ago. From there, it’s nothing but foot-stompin’, feel-good music buoyed by Elly’s passionate accordion playing and complemented by June Eikhard’s fiddle work. This is a perfect summer evening party-on-the-porch record; the kind of down-home, old-time party music you enjoy while laughing and relaxing with friends.

Elly doesn’t currently have a website, but if you want to learn more or order her CD, you can email her at ellykellymusic at

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A Hawk, a Hacksaw and Hun Hangar

A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangar EnsembleWe’ve mentioned A Hawk and a Hacksaw — the duo of accordionist/percussionist Jeremy Barnes (formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel) and violinist Heather Trost — here before. They play Eastern European-influenced gypsy/folk music and their latest album, When the Wind Blows was one of my favorites from last year.

Last November, Barnes traveled to Budapest and met a group of extraordinarily talented Hungarian folk musicians well-versed in a variety of musical styles including Serbian, Romanian, and Klezmer. The result of their collaboration is a new EP called A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangár Ensemble. It’s a vibrant collection, balancing driving, dance-worthy tunes with electic instrumentation, including pheonomenal cymbalom playing by Balázs Unger. (The cymbalom is a type of hammered dulcimer.)

The 8-song EP includes a bonus DVD with “An Introduction To A Hawk And A Hacksaw”, a documentary covering the band’s (practically) nonstop touring across Europe and the United States over the past two years. It’s also a limited edition run of 4,000, so grab it while you can, or pick up the digital version through iTunes.

Saluzzi and Lechner’s Ojos Negros

Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner, Ojos NegrosNPR aired an excellent review yesterday of Ojos Negros, the new album by Argentinian bandoneon great Dino Saluzzi and German cellist Anja Lechner. Saluzzi and Lechner have been collaborating for years and play chamber music rooted in Argentinian folk traditions.

Their music floats between classical and jazz, combining the formal structure of Saluzzi’s compositions with intimate interplay and improvisation between the bandoneon and cello. They’re touring the United States this month, including a show during the “Compressing the World” accordion music series at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles.

You can listen to the full review on the NPR website:

Tom Hagerman’s Breakfast Playground

Tom Hagerman, The Breakfast PlaygroundBest known as a member of both DeVotchKa and the Denver Gentlemen, accordionist/violinist Tom Hagerman recently released his first solo album, The Breakfast Playground. Named for a children’s playground at a Denver mall, the album showcases Hagerman’s diverse talents through original instrumentals performed almost entirely on his own.

Like the music of DeVotchKa, Hagerman’s songs have a dramatic, cinematic quality, inviting listeners on a journey. The train noises that open “So Tired” lead into a Eastern European melody that makes you think you’ve just stepped off the train in Budapest. The swirling mix of accordion, violin, and piano on songs like “Twice Told Tale”, “Home Again”, and “Charlotte Mittnacht” (which DeVotchKa fans may recognize from their 2004 album, How It Ends) call to mind Yann Tiersen’s Amelie soundtrack.

The Breakfast Playground draws you into a world where toy pianos and children’s voices mingle with soaring violin figures and accordion rhythms. Definitely a world worth escaping (and listening) to.

Zevy Zions’ Olive Blossoms

Zevy Zions, Olive BlossomsA few years ago, I inherited a fantastic collection of classic accordion sheet music. The arrangers’ names read like a “Who’s Who” of accordion masters: Deiro, Frosini, Magnante, Nunzio. However, most of the pieces were (and still are) far beyond my reach, so I was left wondering how “La Mariposita” and “Carnival of Venice” should really sound.

Now I know — thanks to Zevy Zions and his excellent new album of accordion solos, Olive Blossoms. Zions is a student of the great performer and teacher Charles Nunzio who, in turn, was a student of the legendary Pietro Frosini. Most of the songs on Olive Blossoms were either written or arranged by Frosini or Nunzio and it’s clear that Zions has gone to great lengths to do them justice.

From the start, Zions’ playing is impeccable, even on the most challenging material. But he’s no robot either; whether it’s the bouncy “Jolly Caballero” or the dreamy “Florette”, Zions handles the dynamics and nuances of each piece with care. The album’s centerpiece is his “Klezmer Suite” arrangement, which builds from a wandering, improvisational Doina to a rollicking Freilach.

Variety is key to any album of solos (regardless of instrument), and Zions does a fine job showing the accordion’s versatility across styles and genres. The album’s 18 tracks range from waltzes to tarantellas, polkas to tangos, with a unique accordion arrangement of a Mozart minuet for good measure.

There are no MIDI tricks here — just pure, beautifully executed renditions of accordion classics. Whether you’re new to these songs, or an experienced player seeking inspiration, Olive Blossoms would be an excellent addition to your accordion listening library.

Los Tigres Still Have Bite

Like a norteño version of the Rolling Stones, Los Tigres del Norte show no signs of slowing down. Even after forty years and selling over 30 million records, the Hernández brothers (and cousin Oscar Lara) still play to packed houses night after night. In the late 60s and early 70s they revolutionized norteño music with electric instruments, pop/rock beats, and corridos about life on the border. Even today, Los Tigres don’t just sing to their audience, they sing about them — telling stories of the joys and heartaches of Mexican immigrants struggling to make it in America.

Last weekend, Los Tigres received glowing write-ups from both the Washington Post and the New York Times. The Washington Post article frames their story in the context of today’s immigration debate — showing how, despite their fame, they manage to stay close to their fans and stand up for them in their music. As bassist Hernán Hernández says, “People don’t just go [to our concerts] to party, they go for a purpose.” Don’t miss the excellent slideshow accompanying the article.

Meanwhile, the New York Times review of their concert at Brooklyn’s Bedford Armory depicts the bouncy, electric atmosphere of a show that lasted until 3am. Sounds like lead singer and accordionist Jorge Hernández had no trouble keeping the crowd going:

“… Adding stabs of accordion chords, he kept working through his battery of gestures of respect or supplication or triumph: doffing his cowboy hat and holding it out with arm fully extended, then putting it back in place, raising his fingers to his lips or his heart, putting forth a fist and shaking it once to signify firmness. He moved entirely in slow motion as the beat pumped behind him, and he was mesmerizing.”

Los Tigres del Norte have a new album due out on March 27 called Detalles y Emociones. The track below is from their most recent album, Historias Que Contar, which won “Best Norteño Album” at last weekend’s Grammys.

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