Eugene Chadbourne,
Worms with Strings
(Leo, 1999)

Eugene Chadbourne specialises in conceptual Americana which steers completely clear of the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow as if they were two cities in a grain belt state. Hardly bothering to ask himself whether he is parodying the country and western which is so widely ridiculed by the po-mo literati or indulging in a nostalgic rediscovery of his rural roots, he creates a highly idiosyncratic fusion of faux-folk. A world-of-his-own music, one might say.

To start where we probably ought to, Chadbourne is a virtuoso on a variety of stringed instruments. For all his buffoon posture, this is a guy who can really play. His mastery of a whole range of techniques -- fast banjo picking, slide, bluesy soloing, jazz, classical and flamenco techniques as well as more experimental stuff -- is enough to turn most pickers green. He never sounds like a collage-player, though despite the often disconcerting changes of direction which are to be expected of anyone so closely associated with Zorn.

The reason for this is that all of his sources are connected. American folk music has always been an amalgam of a variety of European styles, along with the unique input which came about with the emancipation of the slaves. Chadbourne seems to instinctively put the whole of American history under his fingers, although he has precious few concerns about what order it goes in and which social/geographical/racial boundaries he's supposed not to step all over.

Some of these pieces are multi-tracked solo performances, and these are lovely even at their most unhinged. His sense of harmony enables him to construct the most enormous dissonances without ever sounding merely muddy or bludgeoning; a terribly difficult thing to do with plucked strings. His imagination is feverish, non-stop, as if someone were running towards him to snatch up that darned banjo and break it over his knee. It's impossible to do anything while this disc is playing -- you end up just standing there, mouth agape, burning a hole in your shirt with the iron.

There are also some very nice, and very unusual, ensemble pieces featuring George Cremaschi (bass), Brent Dunn (bass), Bob Jordan (tapes, objects, etc.), Carla Kihlstedt (violin), Barry Mitterhof (mandolin), Ted Reichman (accordion, piano), Brian Ritchie (bass guitar, etc.), Charles Rosina (tapes and effects), Leslie Ross (bassoon), Rik Rue (tapes), Carrie Shull (oboe) and Tony Trischka (banjo). The use of bassoon and oboe gives them more of a chamber sound, and the mad cyberhillbilly subsides to make way for something slightly more dignified. Not that this stuff keeps still for very long, nor that it's any less intense, but the group almost inevitably has more space and a less frenetic feel than Chadbourne alone. This is probably little short of an essential album. Everything is perfect -- the playing, the ideas, even the down-home quality of the (mostly four-track) recordings. A work of enormous, generous imagination.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]

Check out Eugene Chadbourne at CDNow.