Ethan James

What Rough Beast

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What Rough Beast is easily the best album of original hurdy-gurdy music released in many years. The fact that it is undoubtedly the only such album does not in the least detract from the achievement here. In fact, the instrumentation isn't the weirdest thing about this album, not by a long shot. That would have to be the lyrics, which shift from wacky to mystical to deeply cynical in the midst of songs which are sometimes tightly focused, sometimes a cascade on non-sequiturs. Ethan James' voice is nothing special as an instrument, but it is expressive and he uses it effectively. The instrumentation is sometimes just the minor-key buzz and violin-like tones of the hurdy-gurdy, at other times a larger ensemble that sounds modern, medieval, and Middle Eastern all at once. Oddly, one of the highlights is the only song that James didn't write -- his passionate, grim rendering of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." What Rough Beast is wonderfully strange and oddly engaging -- an album obviously made with no commercial considerations whatever, and all the better for it.

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