By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
If you're a member of a not-too-ambitious weekend rock band in a Great Lakes city like Milwaukee, Chicago, Toledo, or Detroit, the handwriting is probably on the banquet hall wall. There are only so many bars, coffeehouses, and clubs that book live music. Playing for an audience, any audience, and earning a little cash may inevitably mean hitching your sputtering star to the wedding reception circuit. That's a decision with repercussions on your repertoire. To get the oldsters out on the floor, you need a few pop and soul songs from the Sixties and Seventies. And to get those job offers rolling in from an ethnically diverse population, you'd better have mastered a few Greek, Latin, Arabic, Balkan, and Yiddish pieces, too.
We Know You Know, the third release by the Madison, Wisconsin-based Reptile Palace Orchestra, is hyped in a promo sheet from Omnium Recordings www.omnium.com as "vibrational field messages" from an ancient reptilian race of extraterrestrials that has infiltrated our world. But with its fog of classic rock, woozy low-tech electronica, and tongue-in-cheek psychedelia, We Know You Know doesn't suggest an abduction by sophisticated aliens. Its ambiance is decidedly earthbound, more like the perfect soundtrack for the extended moment when the inebriated groom falls face first into the wedding cake.
The Reptilian's repertoire is so varied, you could hear six songs here and suspect you were listening to that many different bands. The CD includes dirge rock numbers; a sparkling solo mandolin ditty; Arabic-flavored instrumentals; an acoustic piece from Crete; a tape-loop creation featuring Adam West reciting erotic phrases about the Catwoman ("Earth Lee Julie"); and a mind-numbing novelty song, "If You Were a Frog," so chock-full of banal good cheer it throws into question the sincerity of every note on the disc.
Despite the plethora of disparate material, most of the songs combine a love of feedback-laden grungy arrangements and a world-weary attitude saying that while music is important, it isn't exactly life and death -- even when life and death is the theme, as on "Sex and Death," a meditation on the infamous Faces of Death video. Not since the late, lamented 3 Mustaphas 3, in fact, has there been another worldbeat band that refuses to let the goofiness of its songs stand in the way of passionately playing them. The only real misfire is a moldy cover version of the Ides of March's 1970 top 40 radio annoyance "Vehicle," on which a change of gender via Anna Purnell's slightly sinister reading recasts the song rather than destroying it. Past Reptile releases played the version game more adroitly, with sparkling reinventions ranging from an East European twist on Brian Eno's "Sombre Reptiles" to a fondue-ing of Nino Rota's cheesy "Speak Softly Love" from The Godfather.
But all else on the disc pales next to the raging ethno-instruments, starting with the jackhammer delicacy of the Assyrian dance tune "Kochari" and its screaming electric violin solo by Biff Blumfumgagnge, who tones down the electronic distortion but keeps his amp turned to eleven on the subsequent klezmer romp "Uranus Sirtez." Quacking reeds and rapid-fire 22-beat phrases make the Bulgarian "Sandansko Horo" seem merely frantic at first. But synthesizer growls, gaita bagpipe howls, and Robert Schoville's brawling, rolling drums eventually kick the song into a punk no man's land. Guest percussionist Siggi Baldursson raises clouds of dust from his dumbek as all sorts of unholy noises float above the taut belly-dance rhythm on "Time for Ibn Khaldûn (Part 1 and Part 2)." Interrupting the two-parter is a jazzy arrangement of the Balkan "Sauna Deck Cocek" pairing Purnell's smooth trumpet with pumping reeds and an off-kilter nine-beat tempo reminiscent of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo A La Turk."
The second half of the disc is stronger than the first because that's where the ethnically charged songs congregate. Wouldn't it be nice if there were enough of this material to fill an entire album? It's nearly possible once you dip into the fourteen additional songs included on We Know You Know in MP3 format. Or grab early Reptile Palace Orchestra works like Hwy X and Iguana Iguana and burn yourself the ultimate multiethnic wedding reception disc. Just add a three-tiered cake, get the bridal party all liquored up, and you're ready for anything.