Reptile Palace Orchestra’s We Know You Know

cover arat for We Know You KnowPure Camp. It’s not a more mellow Three Mustaphas Three, but there’s a connection somewhere here. Perhaps it’s the occasional frenetic pace, the clever send-ups of everything Americana. The borscht belt is in there somewhere, but this is not your grandma’s klezmer. It’s not even klezmer, it’s Balkan, but you get the idea. It’s hot, and it’s funny, and it’s sophisticated, with a Mediterranean musical tinge that comes straight from Hollywood back lots via the Poconos. The romanticism! The tongues in cheek! The Orientalism! The kitsch! As they say on their Web site: “Gypsy Rock? Traditional toe-twisters? Balkan Lounge Funk? There’s a lizard trying to fit into a pigeonhole. Elvis + Armenia + Funkadelic + Bulgaria = RPO.”

This is not music for idiots. It amuses rather than soothes, and even if used as a background tapestry, it will insert little time bombs into your consciousness. At the same time, there’s a big lounge influence, and strong percussion that bespeaks a familiarity with electronica — or should I say folktronica?

Where does Drew (of Omnium Records) find these people? Oh. Yes. The Midwest. Madison, Wisconsin to be exact. Who Knew? (OK, I admit, I knew, and I snagged this one out of the review pile. Editor’s prerogative. ‘Nuff said.) Reptile Palace Orchestra is a group of multi-instrumentalists who came together for a one-off gig and then evolved into something wonderful. The current lineup includes Ann Purnell on trumpets and vocals, Biff Blumfumgagnge (!) on violins, guitars and mandolins of several sorts, Timm Gould on clarinets and saxophones, Bill Feeny on electric guitar and vocals, Ed Feeny on bass and vocals, and Robert Schoville on percussion.

The album opens with a bang — a frenetic tune entitled “Kochari” that could only come from people who know dancing, who dance themselves. This is followed by the unfortunate “Sex and Death,” which made me thankful for the advance button, and provides the only overly obvious tune on the album. We got it, OK? “If You Were a Frog” is a masterpiece of lounge music, and appropriate for children, too! “If you were a snake / I could use my belly to run.” I can almost see a non-threatening gent playing his guitar, singing for the tots, with the parents rolling their eyes as the double entendres fly by. Wonderful. “Vehicle” sends up the straight ahead sexuality of the 70s, with some subtle additions.

“Apo Laotu” is a long, subversive drum jam that mesmerizes, with occasional interruptions from the horns and the vocals. Cacophony at its finest. And it is followed by “Tune for Ibn Khaldun II,” which opens with a flute solo that could only have come from Kokopeli himself, followed by the sounds of a till opening with a bell and the sounds of scraping paper that suggest the use of sympathetic magic on the part of the band. Or perhaps Ibn has been very helpful. Who knows?

This album is chock full of songs that pique the interest, encased in some fine horns and rhythms that gallop along almost out of control, but never quite. Great fun.

(Omnium, 2003)

Kim Bates

Kim Bates, former Music Review Editor, grew up in and around St. Paul/Minneapolis and developed a taste for folk music through housemates who played their music and took her to lots of shows, as well as KFAI community radio, Boiled in Lead shows in the 1980s, and the incredible folks at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which she's been lucky to experience for the past 10 years. Now she lives in Toronto, another city with a great and very accessible music and arts scene, where she teaches at the University of Toronto. She likes to travel to beautiful nature to do wilderness camping, but she lives in a city and rides the subway to work. Some people might say that she gets distracted by navel gazing under the guise of spirituality, but she keeps telling herself it's Her Path. She's deeply moved by environmental issues, and somehow thinks we have to reinterpret our past in order to move forward and survive as cultures, maybe even as a species. Her passion for British Isles-derived folk music, from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to come from this sense about carrying the past forward. She tends to like music that mixes traditional musical themes with contemporary sensibilities -- like Shooglenifty or Kila -- or that energizes traditional tunes with today's political or personal issues -- like the Oysterband, Solas, or even Great Big Sea. She can't tolerate heat and humidity, but somehow she finds herself a big fan of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Louisana), Regis Gisavo (Madagascar), and various African and Caribbean artists -- always hoping that tour schedules include the Great White North.

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