CD Review: Fishtank Ensemble – Samurai over Serbia
This is the last thing you want to have playing if you’re trying to fall asleep. It’s pure adrenaline: there hasn’t been anything this viscerally exciting playing around here since Ivo Papasov’s new one came over the transom. It’s a safe guess that listening to this cd burns calories. Fishtank Ensemble’s shtick is that they add Asian spice to gypsy music, primarily via Mike Penny’s shamisen, a Japanese lute with a brittle, slightly more piercing tone than a koto. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist/chanteuse Ursula Knudson, whose ability to project all the way to the top of her spectacular range is nothing short of exhilarating. Rachelle Garniez fans will notice a similarity, particularly on the jazzier numbers.
The cd kicks off with the fast traditional gypsy dance, Saraiman, Knudson adding passionate vocals with some rapidfire vibrato. The second cut, Turkish March takes a familiar Mozart piece back to its roots at an extremely entertaining, lickety-split clip. Knudson adds a sprightly ragtime feel to the gypsy swing number Tchavo. Face the Dragon features its composer, violinist Fabrice Martinez trading off atmospheric sheets of sound with Penny’s spiky shamisen and a nifty little bass solo by upright bassist Djordje Stijepovic. A homage to Paco de Lucia written by guitarist Douglas Smolens, Gitanos Californeros sets a frenetic gypsy violin chart against smoldering flamenco guitars, Knudson upping the dramatic ante as the piece builds. Spirit Prison, a first-person, tongue-in-cheek account of life in the loony bins comes across as a hybrid of Carol Lipnik phantasmagoria matched to the purist oldtimey ragtime charm of the Moonlighters. Nice upper-register singing saw solo from Knudson too! They follow it with the eerie, shape-shifting Fraima, originally performed by Opa Cupa.
The Kurt Weill song Youkali is a showcase for Knudson in legit mode, followed by the whirling traditional dance Ezraoul, fueled by the raw intensity of Martinez’ violomba. After the the swinging pulse of Mehum Mato, the title track blasts along with a firestorm of fretwork from the shamisen and the violins, with the rest of the band eventually joining the melee: Dick Dale or a similarly talented surf guitarist would have a field day with this. The cd winds up with the Extremely Large Congenial Romanian, by accordionist Aaron Seeman, more singing saw and vocalese from Knudson, and a bonus track, Yasaburo Bushi, a ferocious Japanese folksong arrangement by Penny. Listen to this all the way through – this is a long cd, many of the songs clocking in at a good seven minutes – and then try breathing lightly. Impossible. A lock for our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year.