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By Stewart Mason

MARCH 28, 2000: 

The Holy Modal Rounders One and Two (Fantasy)

This fact would probably bug a lot of standard-bearing rock and roll fans if they knew it, but the wildest, most out-there albums of the '60s weren't made by the Stones or Hendrix or even the Velvet Underground and don't even have any electric instruments! The first pair of albums by the Holy Modal Rounders, cunningly titled One and Two, came out in 1964 and '65. Not only was the world not ready for them then, I'm not entirely convinced we're ready for them now. Nevertheless, this reissue, combining both records with a pair of previously unreleased tracks, is a great way to get acquainted.

Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber, a junkie and a speedfreak respectively, were bumming around the fringes of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early '60s, playing traditional tunes and selections from the Harry Smith anthology like everybody else, when they realized that the old-time folk singers were singing about their own lives. They knew that if they were going to get anywhere as folk singers, they had better do the same. So alongside frenzied versions of traditional folk tunes like "Sugar in the Gourd" and the slyly rude "Black Eyed Suzie," you get bizarre originals sung in strangled, high-pitched voices rooted in folksinging conventions but putting this tradition to strange and sometimes illogical ends. "Euphoria" is a playful, pun-filled homage to the joys of drug use set to a bouncy fiddle-and-guitar tune. The similar but even weirder "Hesitation Blues" is the first record to ever use the word "psychedelic," a word which also applies to Weber's weird doo-wop parody "Mr. Spaceman" (not the later Byrds song) and the sinister "Crowley Waltz."

What makes these albums of more than just historical/sociological interest is that Stampfel and Weber are impressive instrumentalists. Neither is particularly outstanding technically, but both know exactly what is required for any given tune, a rare and important facility. Stampfel's fiddle playing is particularly notable, and the set of fiddle tunes on the second album, especially an outstanding version of the Stanley Brothers' classic "Clinch Mountain Backstep," are among the most exciting instrumental work to come out of the Greenwich Village folk scene, admittedly not a milieu known for technical proficiency.

The Rounders have played together off and on ever since these albums came out more than 35 years ago. Weber's ironic masterpiece "Boobs a Lot" was covered by the Fugs on their classic first album, and Stampfel has played with everyone from Sam Shepard to They Might Be Giants (he's on Apollo 18's "Fingertips"). But while they've done excellent work both together and separately, they've never quite matched the questing spirit and goofy charm of these first two records. Though they're not quite pop music, they come from a similar cultural perspective, and pop fans looking for a suitable introduction to traditional folk music should give this disc a listen.


The Aquamen Do the Alkeehol! (And Other Hits) (Aquatone/Heyday)

Even more circumscribed by their schtick than Man ...Or Astroman?, these San Francisco-based self-described "legendary masters of surf intoxica" have released several singles and EPs' worth of semi-futuristic instrumental retro-surf (theremin and odd sound effects are mixed in with the organ and heavily-reverbed guitars), with all of the songs named after different types of liquors and mixed drinks and liner notes about the joys of intoxication. It's like if Foster Brooks and Otis the Drunk joined the Surfaris, or so they think. Actually, it's a joke that's funny once and wears thin quickly, yet -- like a real drunk, come to think of it -- they just won't let go of it until long after it's become tiresome.

Actually, they do branch out slightly on Do the Alkeehol!; song titles this time 'round include "Panty Raid," "Cuz Yo a Woman" and "Beans 'N Rice." But as with any surf combo, the real question concerning the Aquamen is if they deliver the goods musically, and much more than most current similar bands, they do. Neither slavishly dedicated to the archetypes of the style -- a couple of tracks even dare to include vocals, even if they're harshly processed and near-inaudible on the title track -- nor insisting that everything they do be appreciated through triple layers of irony, the quintet simply play the type of music they enjoy with style and verve. If you don't like surf, this won't change your mind, but if you do, you're gonna have yourself a time.


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