Starting off with a coolly creepy Waits-esque ramble on mid-West oddities and homeliness, Gary Mackender and crew initiate a very interesting collective of accordion-centered instrumentals and lyrically intriguing tunes. The Carnivaleros occupy that ghostly twilight niche manned by lurking gatherings of really good musicians who keep a tight lock on neighborhood familiarity and loose professionality by capturing a Saturday Night vibe and keeping it firmly stoked. Every track seems cut straight from dives, socials, backroom jams, and jes'-plain-folks get-togethers. Elsewhere in this corner of the musical universe, there's a great longstanding (30+ years) bluesrock band, the Nighthawks, that has the trip down cold, not to mention a righteous hybrid TexMex rock-swing band, the Juke Jumpers, equally friendly. Anyone familiar with those ensembles should well know whereof I speak. The indies are probably the sole resort for such things, but they're not often enough host to this high a degree of warmth, inventiveness, and strangely attractive mutations.
Mackender isn't trying to be a virtuoso, at least not in the sense of lightning-knuckled chops specialists (I've seen Nick Ariondo live and, thus, can attest to what such a specimen might constitute—whew!), but...man!, can he write a mesmeric tune and imbue it with a compelling instrumentality well-seasoned by Americana, importations of Euro backcountry, and swampy good times. His partners in crime are equally impressive, especially Carla Brownlee and her slightly swozzled sax. There's a bayou courtliness to the combo and Marx Loeb's unhurried percussives help greatly in that, scoring the pace in gentler-than-usual metrics.
The listener also very broadly perceives the dark side of Mackender, though, and it may be that, in a generous portfolio of equally provocative upsides, this is his greatest asset. Song titles hint at it (Fools and Angels, Spook Waltz, and Misery and Hope, the last of which, believe it or not, is very sweet and endearing, despite being damn near an oom-pah-pah cut) and lyrics often lay the social entablature out, as in Carnival Ride:
Well we paid our dime so they could give us a thrill
Spook Waltz, though it carries no words, has much the same vibe, spectrally waltzing in the slow anxiety of a Residents composition, a disintegrating circus dementia inexorably bent on collapse amidst ghosts, clammy evenings, and Spanish moss. However, the pervasive Cajun flavor through the disc also inspires much brighter fare, and the Carnivaleros frequently remind one strongly of Taj Mahal and Dr. John, rootsy but sophisticated, a twist of lime drifting down into the pina colada. Then there's a Sicilianly cut, smoky and zesty, Gina Lollabrigida, where the vocal section consists of a bunch of kids singing the famous actress' name, and nothing more than that, in the first movement. Lost in the Graveyard, in fact, is a gumbo of many exotic flavors, all issuing from common ancestry: the mutations of gypsy songcrafting that still so hugely inform the continent across the Atlantic and can't help but infect unorthodox minds over here.
None of that prepares you, though, for the ultra-cool inclusion of Graham Gouldman's old chestnut for the Hollies, Bus Stop, woven into Mackender's own Bazaar 54, both of them now New Orleans jumpy, tipsy, and burnin'. Too, special mention must be made of Mitzi Cowell's guitar playing, perhaps most brilliantly, if only briefly, showcased in Fools and Angels, sounding like the superb Jon Claussen from John Zawacki's (Johnny Z & The Originals) killer late 80s releases. Like Mackender, not content to remain in one style, she turns Morricone-esque in Hang 'Em High Tango Redux. However, every single player fits snugly into the landscape, orchestrated by the wry accordionist, a guy to be watched if you dig the idea of fare issuing from the likes of Jimmy Buffett, the laidback songs of Zachary Richard, and the groups mentioned above, all thrown together, shaken, and poured out like an exotic cocktail in a bar you're not sure really exists.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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