A review for The Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark O'Donnell
With Songs From The Gypsy, BiL links a cycle of songs to a novel by fantasy novelists Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm. The resulting disc, in which Brust co-wrote the tunes with BiL's Adam Stemple, serves as something of a soundtrack to the novel rather than a literal retelling. The story is based on characters found in a Hungarian folktale which contrasts the varying perspectives that people have of gypsies. Those wanderers who are feared, hated, held in awe, persecuted and used as heroes in folktales. The characters are reinvented in the novel and disc to present three varied views of gypsies: the folktale, an American image of a gypsy fortune teller in a carnival tent, and a portrayal of the real lives of the gypsy people. Owing to the CD-ROM enhancement, the listener has access to the complete text of the novel, some 80 soundbites of songs quoted in the novel's text as well as the complete album notes and graphics.
BiL uses a vast array of styles from the world and post-punk arsenals with which they are so familiar. There really is something for everyone here. This disc may be a bit of a change of pace for long time BiL fans. While the traditional instruments are present, there is a much harder edge than on previous BiL albums. Songs From The Gypsy reminded me often of Jethro Tull at their height. This change of pace is perhaps owing to Stemple whose credentials in grunge and metal seem to be most influential. His influence is perhaps most noticeable on the extended and distorted lead on "The Gypsy" (though admittedly Josef Kessler provides a counterbalancing segment mid-song on fiddle). Stemple also lets loose on the final distortion laden track "Red Lights and Neon." The sound of the recording brings to mind the acoustic underlay/fuzzed overlaid riffs of Aqualung, especially in "Raven, Owl and I" and mid-period Led Zep on "Hide My Track." The songs' lyrics are not derivative of these dinosaurs, but clearly there is a nod to those pre-metal song cyclers of days past.
Don't let the traditionalists among you be put off, for there is much that is of a more folk/traditional manner. "No Passenger" and "The Fair Lady" are both lovely, affecting tunes, in a fairly traditional vein with fingerpicked guitar, strummed mandolin, plaintive vocal and diverse, expressive lyrics. The bluesy slide guitar and growling vocal of "Back In Town" might well fit those other Twin Cities natives Koerner/Ray/Glover. World music traditionalists will enjoy the traditional Hungarian melody of "Ugros," played beautifully by Josef Kessler. Kessler also shines on "Blackened Page" where his emotional playing really comes through and brings this song home.
Yes, Songs From The Gypsy is a different kind of BiL album. They are taking some real chances here and for the most part, they pay off and really indicate that BiL is growing and will be around for a while. While it is not essential that the novel be read to enjoy THE GYPSY, it will enhance your experience. If you can adjust to the varied changes of pace, you're going to enjoy this (musical) tale.