Fantastic Planets

Truth be told, despite its technical innovations (it can play lead, melody, and rhythm at the same time; it's portable; it can't go out of tune) and general adaptability to every musical culture out there, the accordion remains a silly instrument. And while you'll find herein some sporadic efforts to display the squeezebox's more sensitive side (some Debussy is included, as is Gil Goldstein's solo reading of the jazz standard "Detour Ahead"), Planet Squeezebox basically gives you a three-hour accordion party. Producer Michal Shapiro estimates conservatively that 90 percent of the collection is dance music of some kind, and the general foot-stomping air gives shape to things as the tracks leap across the globe.

There's also a welcome sense of geographic logic, with entries moving organically from region to region much as the instrument itself did. Shapiro is rarely content to just offer a few traditional tunes and press on, though. He tosses a few curves along the way. Instead of the straight Bavarian LĄndlermusik that every German beer-hall band plays, we get the amazing offering from Attwenger, an unusual accordion/drum duo that plays a sort of rampaging oompah-core. And when the time comes to polka, as it inevitably must, there is but one traditional Slovenian-style track (and it isn't even from Frankie Yankovic, the closest thing there is to a polka superstar). In its wake there are a couple of impressively goofy joke polkas (jolkas?) from Brave Combo and eccentric virtuoso Guy Klucevsek, whose "The Grass, It Is Blue (Ain't Nothin' But a Polka)" somehow quotes Gershwin and minimalist composer Terry Riley's "In C" in the same breath.

Squeezebox doesn't pretend to be definitive. Indeed, it seems to shy away from the few giants the instrument has produced, whether by design or by inability to procure publishing rights. (Luckily we are talking about the accordion here, so it's not like Hendrix got left out.) Still, it's hard to figure a comprehensive accordion sampler that avoids both the late Louisiana zydeco king Clifton Chenier and the very much alive Tex-Mex superstar Flaco Jimenez. The sole zydeco representative turns out to be the distinctly minor Zydeco Force, a likable enough bar band but not one likely to be mistaken for masters such as Boozoo Chavis or Rockin' Dopsie any time soon. Cajun music fares better, with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys making the cut, along with a good sample of French-Canadian Quebecois tunes.

The set seems far more interested in steering away from the familiar and unearthing enterprising Third Worlders who've made the accordion their own, and it is here that the collection really shines. The South African township jive that Paul Simon plundered so effectively gets a good workout here, along with variations from the Ivory Coast (Le Zagazougou's sweetly funky "Varietoscope") and Nigeria (Juju pioneer I.K. Dairo's "Ore Arakunrin"). The Latin American coverage, conjunto excepted, is good as well, with a generous assortment of steamy Colombian vallenato and Brazilian forr cents dance music.

But like its Planet Soup companion, the whole of Planet Squeezebox is greater than the sum of its odd parts, despite the glaring omissions and periodic duds. And after a good three hours of accordions from Dublin to Madagascar, the global village does indeed seem like a smaller, wackier place. There is also a vaguely inspiring subtext to the whole accordion saga: What is curious about hearing the accordion in 52 different languages is the sheer indomitability of both the instrument and the people who play it. This strange honking thing was embraced most artfully by people who had next to nothing, from Irish farmers to South African coal miners, and Planet Squeezebox is a tribute less to a goofy-sounding instrument than to the overpowering human need to somehow have a good time.

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