After reviewing or critiquing god knows how much music over the last five years I've discovered a pattern I tend to fall into. Although there are a few performers I've followed for years and will continue to do so because of their ability to keep their work fresh by continually discovering new ways of presenting their ideas, too often a person or group will be initially exciting only to end up being disappointing by sticking to the same formula repeatedly. While I can understand the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality to a certain extent, in my opinion when it comes to the creative process that only leads to stagnation and boredom. There are more times than I'd like to count over that I've been really excited by the first couple of discs a performer or group have put out to only become frustrated and bored with them by the third disc when they continue to do the same thing over and over again.
As a result I've been reviewing a lot less music of late. It just seems harder and harder to find somebody or some band interesting enough to even give a listen to, let alone review. Maybe part of the problem is the number of press releases finding their way into my inbox on a daily basis using the same group of adjectives to describe whatever genre of music they happen to be promoting. Everybody, from blues to death metal, seem to be fresh and exciting, or at the very least invigorating. So many bands are being described as alternative these days I'm falling back on Ellen Page's line in her roller derby movie Whip It and asking "Alternative to what?" How can you be alternative when you sound like a thousand other bands out there?
Thankfully I tend to exaggeration. If the scene were as bad as I describe it sometimes I think I'd blow my brains out. There are still bands and musicians out there who provide genuine alternatives to the mind-sapping pabulum that passes for popular music on the radio these days. One who I've just been fortunate enough to stumble across are a four-piece outfit who go by the really odd name of The Fishtank Ensemble. They've just put out their third release – on their own label – called Woman In Sin, and I can guarantee you'll be hard pressed to find a more eclectic collection of songs gathered onto one CD anywhere. The lead singer, Ursula Knudson, used to sing opera; violinist Fabrice Martinez is from Paris and studied with gypsy violinists across Europe; guitarist Doug Smolens used to hang out with Billy Idol and Slash before becoming hooked on flamenco and running off to Spain to learn from masters in the caves around Granada; while Djordje Stijepovic started playing bass with local Romany bands in Serbia when he was 13 until moving to the US where he joined a band with Lemmy from Motorhead and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats.
Okay, so these folk have been around a bit and bring some pretty strange influences to the table with them, but how does it all blend together and are they any good? Where to start? I've listened to the disc three times now and each time I've come away even more amazed than I was the previous time. I could tell you about Knudson's incredible range as a vocalist — how she can soar right up the scale and sing scat up there that will put your heart in your throat and then turn around and growl her way through a rendition of "Fever" that will leave you so hot and bothered a cold shower won't help. I could also tell you how Stijepovic's bass accompaniment on that song will make you think he's channeling Charlie Mingus and how he can also play slap bass in a way that you've never heard before, and might not ever again, when he leads the group through a Balkan dance number called "Djordje's Rachenitza".
Then there are the two lead instruments… well, at least in most bands you would consider the guitar and violin the leads, but here they are content to be equal members of the band. Either Smolens or Martinez could easily dominate any ensemble they played with, they are such virtuosos, and on the pieces where they step forward you can't help but let your jaw drop at their playing. However what impressed me the most about the two of them was their versatility. There are many violinists and guitarists who can play one, maybe two, and even sometimes three different styles of music well, but these two seem able to handle anything you can think of. Torch songs, flamenco, gypsy tear-the-floor-up dance music, jazz standards, and the rest of their repertoire are all played with an ease that's not only deceptive but mind-boggling when you realize their complexity. In fact they're both almost too good for their own good. They are so effortless in their playing you can almost miss noticing their excellence.
Most of the time when you hear a band being described as world music it usually means they play something that's not recognized as being pop music within our limited definition of that term. The Fishtank Ensemble actually do play world music as they are inspired by not only their different nationalities but an international variety of musical interests. While one song might sound like it comes from a demented cabaret populated by characters from a Kurt Weill opera, another is redolent with the raw, naked passion of loss you'll only hear in the truest and scariest flamenco, and a third has echoes of a rain-swept street in late night Paris. From small mountain villages in the Balkans to the urban sharpness of a hot jazz spot, The Fishtank Ensemble will take you on a musical odyssey that will leave your head spinning and your heart soaring.
I listened to my first pop record back in 1965 when a babysitter played me her daughter's 45 of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand". In the interim 45 years I've heard more music than I can possibly remember because the majority of it has been forgettable. Every so often, though, a musician or band has come along that won't let me forget them because of what they do and how they do it. For me it's always been those bands who don't adhere to any set pattern and are always pushing themselves off into new directions who leave the greatest impression. With their first release The Fishtank Ensemble have shown that they are not only gifted musicians but also unafraid to take risks. That has the potential to be a memorable combination — we can only hope they're able to maintain what they've started.