Second Impressions

Bo Diddley was right when he sang that song about judgment, books and covers. If you tried to decide whether to check out these bands based solely on their names and promotional blurbs, you'd probably decide to stay warm and dry, huddled around the fireplace or the VCR.Big mistake, that. Because both Magical Strings and Oranj Symphonette have more to offer than a quick description would suggest. They're both guilty pleasures.If someone told me to go see a group with the word magical in its moniker, that opened for Dan Fogelberg, that uses a harp and children's voices -- well, my New Age alarm would shriek. That typically cloying, soft-headed, post-hippie muzak just isn't my cup of syrup. But Magical Strings offer rewards to listeners beyond the tie-dye and Birks crowd.Celtic music fans will enjoy their shimmering arrangements of jigs and reels. Folkies of all stripes will appreciate the traditional British isles and Nordic influences undergirding their original compositions. Musical progressives will admire the way founder Phil Boulding and his partner, Pam, have assimilated those influences and those of other cultures into their own unique vision.In the mid-1970s, Boulding had the happy inspiration to wrap the piercing rhythmic sound of the hammered dulcimer in the lusher lyricism of the Celtic harp to create music that's as nourishing as it is sweet. Over 18 years and nine albums, the duo has displayed impressive growth. Celtic influences dominated early duo albums like _Above the Tower,_ and _On theBurren_ and Phil Boulding's _Harp,_ all on the folk-oriented Flying Fish label. But in the last few years, Magical Strings has broadened its scope to encompass more so-called world music, arriving at a sound that should appeal to fans of Oregon and even Deep Forest as well as Capercaille, Nightnoise and Altan. Their strongest album, 1994's _Bell Off the Ledge_ (recorded in Portland), added steel drums, cello, flute, fiddle and a distinct kora (West African harp) influence. The new disk, _Islands Calling_, on EarthBeat, incorporates Hawaiian, Jamaican, and even Malagasy elements, and expands the instrumentation to include such Windham Hill stalwarts as guitarist Alex de Grassi and cellist Eugene Friesen along with slack key guitarist Keola Beamer. Compared to "authentic" traditional music, some of MS's interpretations can seem a bit precious, but the eclecticism generally works. The Bouldings are often joined by two of their grown children on violin and cello.Besides creating lovely music, the Bouldings live and farm on an island overlooking Puget Sound and teach classes in lyre and harp for musically literate and play-by-ear students alike. In my more punk or grunge moments, I'm tempted to toss my MS albums, but for those moments when I want music that's easy to listen to without being Easy Listening, I'm glad to have them. Now, if only they'd change that name....When I saw the disk's title _Oranj Symphonette plays Mancini,_ I groaned. Just another entry in the '90s parade of ultra-lounge revival music. Not to say there weren't a few gems lurking among the muck -- I sometimes use an Esquivel track on my answering machine message myself. But mostly, the neo-martini fad has been an excuse for oh-so-cool 20-somethings to show how ironically hip they are by sneering at the worst the '50s could offer. Where's the fun -- not to mention musical value -- in swatting such an easy target? It's like making fun of Zsa Zsa Gabor's acting. Better to concentrate on truly deserving revival targets -- like, say, the execrable Star Wars reprise.But in best postmod fashion, this jazzy San Francisco combo simultaneously pays tribute to and wryly winks at the best of Mancini, the film composer who scored, among many, many others, _Breakfast at Tiffany's_ and the Pink Panther flicks. For all his schmaltz, Mancini did add some innovations to movie music, and the Oranj Symphonette uses them as a point of departure for some sharp improvisation, generally avoiding kitschy camp mannerisms. The variety of successful approaches demonstrates what a range Mancini had. Even if you think you haven't heard a Mancini tune -- trust me, you have; you just might not have realized that he wrote it.The fine players have all put in serious woodshed time with major jazz players like Charlie Hunter, Max Roach, and Bill Frisell as well as rockers like Tom Waits, the B-52s and P.J. Harvey. Bassist Matt Brubeck (yes, offspring of) plays cello in the Berkeley Symphony and has worked with the Kronos Quartet. Respectful but not reverent, smiling but not smirking, the five-member ensemble (organ, guitar, sax and other blowers, percussion) takes these familiar tunes and makes some serious, raucous fun in the manner of John Zorn playing Morricone, the Ordinaires covering Led Zeppelin, and Brave Combo doing anything.


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