The Holy Modal Rounders & Friends,
I Make a Wish for a Potato
(Rounder, 2001)

It's a bit daunting to review the work of a group which inspired the name for one of the most respected independent labels in music in America today. And yet, after all these years, Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber (and friends) are still making their own peculiar species of music and mayhem and social commentary cloaked in the raiment of chaos that has pretty much always (very loosely) defined their work.

What to make of an album whose liner notes make reference to the "Republican coup d'etat" of 2000, and bears the somewhat curious title I Make a Wish for a Potato? If you know the work of the Rounders, explanations are unnecessary, and if you don't, no explanation will suffice. If you're new to HMR and desperately anxious to get a handle on just what the hell's going on here, from this selection I recommend "Happy Rolling Cowboy" and "Rotten Lettuce," the former as an exercise in Rounders' "feel good" music and the latter an exercise in vegetable metaphor in petit opera. Even the familiar will prove elusive in the hands of these guys; witness their assault on "Bonaparte's Retreat."

Though people have maintained for years that the Grateful Dead should have been the house band for the Merry Pranksters, songs like "Bad Boy" allow me to argue that they should have at least alternated gigs with the HMR. Certainly folks weren't drawn to the classical, bell-like quality of Stampfel's vocals on works such as "Random Canyon," though the instrumental groove provides a slightly funkier counterpoint to some of the extended jams found in the Dead's canon.

Pre-cowpunk, post-Tin Pan Alley Revival, part medicine show razzamatazz, part Zappaesque chanson with little to none of Frank's cynical bile, the work of the Rounders resisted classification back in the day of its origin and successfully resists all such attempts in These Later Days. Like much that is out there on the fringes of absurdist homage, one tends to not be of temperate disposition as to how they feel about the work of these gentlemen and their accomplices, and I am pretty sure that I like just fine the work of anyone who finds a way to fuse UFOs, the CIA, Mickey Mouse and Appalachian fiddle into a work of seamless poetry (c.f. "Nova"). Hey, they even managed to make room on this compilation for "Sweet Lucy," a personal favorite.

Bottom line: should I run out and buy this? I answer this pivotal question with one or two of my own: Do you own (and listen to) the work of Leon Redbone? Tiny Tim? The aforementioned Frank Zappa? Doug Sahm and his Band? Any jug band which has recorded in the last 60 years? Loudon Wainwright III? Warren Zevon? John Prine? Bruce Cockburn? If the answer to any three of the above is "yes," you should go find this sampler of dementia and listen in wonder. If the answer is "no," you should probably do so anyway, to both broaden your horizons and learn that living life in an altered state almost always exacts a price.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 14 December 2001

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