Fifty years after he cut his first album with the Holy Modal Rounders, Peter Stampfel's approach to record making doesn't seem to have changed all that much: gather around the microphone, roll the tape, and let inspiration take hold. That was clearly the philosophy behind the recording of Better Than Expected, in which Stampfel is joined by the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron, a loose ensemble of like-minded friends who plunk along (and sometime sing or whistle) with the acid folk hero on 16 songs, some old, some new, some merely vocal exercises that produce unexpected and entertaining results. According to Stampfel, Better Than Expected was cut in a single six-hour recording session, and the amiable but rumpled feeling of these performances suggests that's entirely accurate. Though everyone on Better Than Expected seems to be traveling in the same direction, that doesn't mean they're always on the same path, and there are moments in which the various elements rise not quite as one that suggest the wobbly psychedelia of '60s Holy Modal Rounders classics like Indian War Whoop or The Moray Eeels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, though produced through organic means rather than studio trickery. Stampfel's simple strategy seems to be to gather the players and have some goofy but purposeful fun with their tunes, and Better Than Expected delivers on that promise: instrumentals like "G3" and "Page 64" have a spectral beauty that's playful yet haunting, the oddball vocalese treatment of "Sukiyaki" is eccentric but captures the tune's real beauty, "Roadkill" is a lusty exercise in full-bodied gross-out humor, and "NSA Man" is an updated reworking of the Fugs' "CIA Man" that's as funny, foul-mouthed, and full of rage as it ought to be. Peter Stampfel as built a career -- and a life -- out of making music that's expressive and joyous but never takes itself more seriously than need be, and Better Than Expected reveals he's still finding new vistas to explore; the result is conclusive proof that collective anarchy is fun and good for you.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming