25 Songs: Pistolera

Bouncy cumbias, a pumping accordion, Spanish lyrics… you would assume this music comes from somewhere south of the border. But no, Pistolera comes straight outta Brooklyn, combining Latin rhythms and instrumentation with indie-rock guitar and politically conscious lyrics. Which makes sense given the background of leader Sandra Lilia Velasquez, who grew up in San Diego listening to a combination of alternative rock and her mom’s cumbia records. They recently released their second album, En Este Camino, but this track comes from their excellent debut, Siempre Hay Salida.

25 Songs: The Pogues

For day #4 of our accordion advent calendar, we return to holiday music, but this isn’t your typical, cheery Christmas tune. Instead of Santa, Rudolph, or Jack Frost, we’ve got an alcoholic gambler and his heroin addict wife hurling insults at each other. And yet, year after year, The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” heads the lists of top holiday songs in the UK, as perhaps the ultimate seasonal ode to dysfunctional family. James Fearnley’s accordion takes a backseat to the sparring vocals of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl on this one, but it’s hard to argue with the end result.

Look Ma, No Hands!

Sex With No Hands: Squeeze ItFrom Sly and the Family Stone to Tower of Power, the San Francisco Bay Area has a rich history of funk music. I’m willing to bet, however, that Sex With No Hands is the first Bay Area funk band to feature dueling accordions. Nevertheless, this six-piece party band is making a name for itself from China Basin to the Marina with sweaty, high-energy shows and accordion-driven homages to the late 1970s.

Their recent EP, Squeeze This, showcases the band’s eclecticism, echoing the sounds of Parliament, Billy Idol, and a cheesy conjunto in the span of just four tracks. In between the accordions, you’ll hear plenty of keytar, synthesizer, cowbell, and Frampton-inspired talkbox. You can download the full EP for free from their site.

Like any good party band, however, Sex With No Hands is best experienced live. (It’s tough to convey the power of a truly awesome laser light show through an mp3.) Fortunately, you can catch their Halloween bash next Friday night at Ireland’s 32 in San Francisco. Tickets are limited, but you can buy them online.

Top 5 Accordion Rock Songs?

In honor of the American Accordionists Association’s annual festival — going on this weekend in Arlington, Virginia — the Washington Times published a list of its top five accordion rock songs. (We’ll try to ignore the fact that they misspelled “accordion.”) Their list:

  • “Squeeze Box” by The Who
  • “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” by Bruce Springsteen
  • “Jenny’s Got a Pony” by Los Lobos
  • “Back Street Girl” by The Rolling Stones
  • “If I Should Fall from Grace With God” by The Pogues

For some reason, they ruled out crossover acts like BeauSoleil and Buckwheat Zydeco, but even then, I still think they’re missing some winners. What would make your list of top accordion rock songs? Leave a comment and let us know.

Return of the Monsters of Accordion

Monsters of AccordionLock up your kids! The Monsters of Accordion all-accordion road show is back and ready to take the West Coast by storm. This year’s tour — which starts Thursday in Santa Rosa — is bigger than ever, with stops in ten cities including San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. Tour organizer Jason Webley is headlining once again; Mark Growden, Amy Denio, and Duckmandu will join him for every stop. Meanwhile, each show will include special local guests, including Eric Stern of Vagabond Opera, Dan Cantrell, Mrs. Hobbs, and many more.

As an added bonus this time out, the Monsters will be holding “Accordion Monster Master Classes” in Oakland (August 17) and Seattle (August 24). Class topics will include “choosing an accordion, left-hand technique, DIY instrument repair, audience participation, accordion for punks, repairing your van with a handgun, and the role of the accordionist in the digital era.”

Anna and I went to the show in San Francisco last year and it was easily one of the best (and most fun!) accordion events we’ve ever attended. Check out our photos and a video of the incomparable Corn Mo performing “We Are the Champions,” then make your plans to catch this year’s tour.

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Weird Al and the Roland V-Accordions

Weird Al YankovicIt’s probably no surprise that Weird Al Yankovic is on the cutting edge of accordion technology and, indeed, Roland has a fun little interview with him about their V-Accordion line of digital accordions. Apparently Al has been an FR-7 user for quite some time and just picked up the smaller, lighter FR-2. In the interview, Al talks about the appeal of a digital accordion versus an acoustic one:

“I really like the idea that it is a direct connection. The accordion is a hard instrument to mic, because if you put an acoustic microphone next to an accordion — especially the left hand — the bellows are always moving. So it’s kind of hard to get an even sound, because the mic is always going to be closer and then further away from the sound source. Internal microphones are also always a problem, because you still get the sound of the bellows. So just the simple fact that there’s a digital solution out there where you get a clean accordion sound is very appealing to me.”

Weird Al will be on tour this summer supporting his latest album, Straight Outta Lynwood; keep an eye on our calendar for dates. (Interview found via Wired).

Paste Promotes the Accordion Revolution

Not sure how I missed this, but the April issue of Paste Magazine has a couple features on the accordion. The first, “Squeezebox Redux: The World’s Dorkiest Instrument Earns Hipster Cred”, notes the accordion’s recent rise to prominence in the indie rock world. One label head suggests that “the more bands that use accordions, the more [new] bands will be inspired to try it themselves.” DeVotchKa’s Tom Hagerman also has a good quote:

“The accordion can quickly color a piece of music into a much darker or even grotesque sort of tune… I think in pop music it tends to make things sound a little anachronistic, in a good way.”

Paste also published their “Ultimate Accordion Playlist”. The list is, again, indie rock-centric, and features a number of the bands we’ve covered here (They Might Be Giants, the Decemberists, Gogol Bordello, Arcade Fire, etc.). Any notable omissions?

A Mad and Faithful DeVotchKa

Devotchka, A Mad and Faithful TellingOf all the bands I’ve discovered while writing for Let’s Polka, DeVotchKa is quite possibly my favorite. We saw them at a club in San Francisco a couple years ago and were blown away — their unique brand of gypsy-mariachi rock was infectious and it’s hard to dislike any band that sports an accordionist/violinist, a drummer/trumpet player, a tuba player, and a wine-swigging lead singer. Two years later, after making a splash with their soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine, DeVotchKa does not disappoint with their new album, A Mad and Faithful Telling.

It’s easy to get caught up in the novelty of DeVotchKa’s sound — the cinematic swells, the mariachi horns, the tinkling glockenspiels — but don’t overlook the rich songs bubbling under that melting pot’s surface. “Transliterator” balances frenzy and restraint beautifully, the shuffling “Head Honcho” carries you away, and “Undone” is just achingly stunning.

We loved accordionist Tom Hagerman’s recent solo album, The Breakfast Playground, and — from his fierce violin on “Comrade Z” to his playful accordion on “Strizzalo” — he plays a huge role on this record. Other bands have helped put the accordion on the indie rock map in recent years, but few carry it as naturally or as well as DeVotchKa.

The Adventures of the Felice Brothers

I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz lately about the Felice Brothers, three brothers (and a traveling dice player named Christmas… seriously) from upstate New York who play rough and tumble American roots music. They started out busking in the NYC subway and touring in a “short” school bus, but now they’re wowing critics and drawing comparisons to Dylan, Springsteen, and the Band. Not too shabby for a band whose self-titled debut just came out today.

They may not live up the comparisons yet, but make no mistake, this is honest, hearty, gritty music. You can hear James Felice’s excellent accordion all over their new album; my favorite track is the shuffling “Frankie’s Gun”:

Dropkick Murphys on Letterman

You don’t see a lot of accordions on late-night TV (or any-time TV, unfortunately), so I was happily surprised to catch the Dropkick Murphys on the Late Show with David Letterman last Friday. With the band member Marc Orrell rocking a Roland accordion, they played a track (“The State of Massachusetts”) from their latest CD, The Meanest of Times. Here’s the video:

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