One of the strangest releases to come out of the Charlottesville music scene in recent memory is a new double album by Matty Metcalfe, the ubiquitous local multi-instrumentalist who performs solo, on guitar with Old Calf, and on keys in the Hill and Wood. (He would probably join your band too, if you’re looking for an ace accordion, bouzouki or bamboo whistle player.) At a performance August 30 at Louisa Arts Center, Metcalfe released Musette Moderna/Tango a’Tiempo, a collection of 19 songs that aims to renovate the dusty reputations of French Musettes on one disc, and Argentine Tangos on the other.
Local multi-instrumentalist Matty Metcalfe polishes off old Musettes and Tangos on a new double album.
Enter the synthesizers, the guitars, the electric banjo. Metcalfe writes that the inspiration for these albums was “to essentially bring these wonderful songs into the new century by treating, arranging, and recording them with more modern ideas and technologies.” To that end, he and his band offer expert performances on an odd menagerie of acoustic instruments, from accordions and whistles to the violin. Among the only indications that this is, in fact, modern music, are the synthesizer lines that dot some tracks.
And it somehow works. The record sounds as if Tom Waits, rose clenched in his teeth, had composed the soundtrack to Amelie in a moment of deep personal indecision. A fuzzed out guitar, buckling under a tremolo, belongs as much to Waits as it does to Ennio Morricone, the famed composer of Spaghetti Western soundtracks; hints of Morricone return in the urgent, gutteral piano of modern Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Gitanerias,” again echoed in the “Musette a’Teresa,” a Musette on Metcalfe’s Tango disc, written by modern Irish musicians of Reeltime.
The gorgeous drama of each well-chosen piece lies in the emotional detours; minor key passages are punctuated with short breaks, at which point a violin or accordion line whisks the composition back into the major key. Metcalfe aptly applies these compositional qualities to a Tango-styled Madonna medley, “Tango a la Madge,” which begins with a straightforward, synthed out groove on “Like a Prayer,” runs through an understated take on “Like a Virgin,” only to break into an accordion-based “Material Girl.” If you’re counting, that’s American music originally performed by an Italian-American, performed in the Argentine style, that, in the end, sounds like karaoke (Japanese in origin).
A flyer for the release concert showed a picture of Metcalfe, wearing an accordion and smiling, nestled among images of the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, Argentine Tango pioneer Carlos Gardel, Musette composer Gus Viseur—as well as images of Like A Virgin-era Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, who also gets the Musette medley treatment on disc one. The visualization hints at how Metcalfe’s music is an exercise in tracing a musical lineage where perhaps there isn’t one. Or, at least, where there wasn’t one.