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Peter Stampfel And The Brooklyn And Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron's "Better Than Expected" Reviewed

Peter Stampfel, leftie

Peter Stampfel, leftie

Peter Stampfel has made the magical album of the year. It seems to levitate like the way the hippies tried to levitate the White House in the 1960s, Peter Stampfel And The Brooklyn And Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron’s Better Than Expected seems to rise above its recording and float in mid air. In a world where the magic is the mundane, where the future is here finally, Stampfel’s form of magic is to take a handful of banjos and craft sound sculptures of string. It really is awesome and if it sounds  as though it might be twee, it isn’t at all.

According to Mark Deming here, Peter gathered some like minded friends and recorded the entire album in six hours but certainly “NSA Man” and “Eat The Roadkill”, not to mention the melodic masterful “G Tuning # 3” seems to suggest it wasn’t entirely improvised by any stretch of the lexicon.

Two songs, the agitprop masterstroke “NSA Man” and the funny and weird “Eat The Road Kill” are the building blocks and returning motifs of the semi improvised tracks that make up the banjo jams of the rest of the album. It has a casual, open ended and airy feel to the proceedings, the music congeals but in an elastic way. Everything is easy and simplified as though if it is the zen way of recording albums. Listen to the last Katy Perry album and this is the opposite. It isn’t building blocks of tracks upon tracks by people who have never met, rather it is the ease of a certain friendliness and also a certain professionalism. Nothing feels wasted.

If all Better Than Expected was was the 75 year old Peter Stampfel’s jamming out on songs with names like “Theme From The Exodus From Bushwick To Ridgewood” -a particularly bright and joyful sound, it would still  make the album huge. But “NSA Man” is as important a piece of political dissent as I’ve heard in a long long time. Stampfel laughs at the repulsive, spying Government -and remember, this is the most left wing Government the US has had since Carter, but there is an anger at the intrusion of the Government on every single aspect of our personal life. You might add that we wouldn’t even know about if it wasn’t for Wikileaks. Stampfel, a big time rock and roll guy who was a saving grace of the late 1980s with the Bottle Caps, who has never stopped recording albums, isn’t so much better than he ever is, though “NSA Man” is a huge song, but the same only with less to concern himself about. A reworking of the Fugs “CIA Man”, NSA is  precisely what should be said and exactly how it should be said. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed agit-prop more, somebody should give it to Bruce Springsteen whose recent “Hey Blue Eyes” was a disastrous po-faced political ho hum.

“NSA Man” is both the highlight and just another track on Better Than Expected and the difference between this album and Bottle Cap albums like 2004’s The Jig Is Up, is not the banjos as such but that  this is even wollier, coolier, friskier and friendlier. It is the strangest of albums, a series of jams in various keys which adds itself to a vision of a world that doesn’t exist now. Stampfel is like a smart hippie or a peaceful yippie; his eye on America is jaundiced but this is a community album and his eye on his community is very kind indeed.

The pleasures here make me float, it makes me think of what music should be

Grade: A


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