In terms of pure fun, there aren’t many bands in New York who can compete with Tipsy Oxcart. Saturday night at Barbes, as part of a WFMU radio broadcast, they played a tantalizingly brief set of music rooted in Balkan sounds, with bits of reggae, and dub, and cumbia and styles from across the Middle East soaring over a fat groove. That bouncing low end is one thing that distinguishes them from most other bands who jam out on dark Eastern European folk melodies. Another distinguishing characteristic is Maya Shanker’s violin tone: she uses an effects pedal, at one point managing to pretty much replicate the sound of a steel pan as she plucked her strings. The band has an excellent second album, Upside Down, streaming at their Bandcamp page and a show on Matchless in Williamsburg at 9 PM on May 20, where they’re followed at 10 by Brooklyn pioneers Hungry March Band, who play brass styles from New Orleans to Belgrade and pretty much all points in between.
Back in 2013, this blog said that Tipsy Oxcart’s debut, Meet Tipsy Oxcart, was better than the Beatles’ first album. And it was! Meet the Beatles may be a perfectly enjoyable janglerock record, but it’s not Tipsy Oxcart. Jury’s out on how the band’s career will compare to the Fab Four in five years’ time, but so far so good. The new album’s opening cut, Honey Dripper hints at Ethiopiques and then hits a reggae groove, Shanker in tandem with accordionist Jeremy Bloom and alto saxophonist Connell Thompson over the deep pulse of bassist Ayal Tsubery and drummer Dani Danor.
Yalla Yalla pairs eerily spiraling, wickedly microtonal Thompson clarinet with acerbic responses from Shanker over a trickily rhythmic beat, Bloom driving the dance to a raucous peak. Me First, a rather epic Shanker composition that also appeared on the debut album, features starkly incisive, rapidfire violin, a moody, Turkish-flavored clarinet break, and then after another pretty feral Shanker solo, hands off to Bloom’s machinegunning accordion. The Sheikh may sound as Arabic as a Hungarian freylach, but it’s a supremely tasty minor-key romp, Bloom and Thompson raising the energy to redline as Tsubery takes a familiar ba-bump groove and walks it briskly.
Bone Dance has an unexpectedly pensive sweep flavored with Shanker and Thompson’s twin harmonies over a backdrop that ranges from straight-up reggae to dizzying polyrhythms. You might think that the elegant fingerpicking that opens and then recurs in Homecoming over Bloom’s spare, wistful lines is a guitar, but it’s not – it’s Tsubery playing his bass way up the fretboard. Thompson and Bloom’s trilling lines are as catchy as they are bracing. Fax Mission, a salute to outdated technology, is the most westernly jazzy of the tracks here – at least until a completely unexpected dub interlude and then a searing Thompson alto solo. Then they go back to straight-up Serbian flavor with Tutti Frutti, Thompson and Shanker’s wildly careening lines over a tight strut. It’s about as far as you can get from a cheesy 50s pop hit
Sevdah One Eight has a bittersweet edge, Shanker and Thompson’s uneasy harmonies over Bloom’s lush backdrop. Tipska brings back the Balkan reggae – or is that ska? – up to a blistering outro fueled by Tsubery’s fuzztone attack. The album winds up with The Storm, a surreallistically vivid, shapeshiftingly cinematic tableau with more of a Balkan brass feel than the rest of the material. Look for this on the best albums of 2015 page here in December if we’re all still here.