By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
LATELY THE PHRASE "Tom Waits-esque" has been creeping into rock reviews with the same frequency as hackneyed descriptions like "aural delight" and "sonically challenging." Clutter your record with old-timey, Tin Pan Alley song-poetry and shuffling backdrops; sing your songs in a hoarse, growling voice...and BOOM! You're in Tom Waits-esque Land, like it or lump it.
Employing a battery of acoustic instruments ranging from accordions to zithers, Frank Pahl swims in and out of those perilous waters, occasionally slipping into what appears to be a full-on parody of Tom's style at its rudest. "You could always wake up next to a Taco Bell employee in his pink mobile home with two flat tires and a leaky roof!" he hoarsely growls over a deadpan shuffle that leaves the classic Waits accompaniment seeming airy by comparison. But to sequester Pahl to the Tom Waits-esque ghetto would be to ignore an enormous talent rife with natural eccentricity and eclecticism. The Michigan-based soundsmith has a knack for filling out ostensibly avant-garde, often free-jazzy playing with a warm love rarely felt in musics so peculiar.
His heart rings true from the outset of In Cahoots. The album opens with "Wisconsin," a quaint instrumental that kidnaps the first day of spring by steeping an assured accordion and upright bass in a lovely, ascending violin/ukulele melody. Nothing else on In Cahoots sounds quite like "Wisconsin," but that's just the point: Through the course of the album Pahl is joined by approximately 15 different performers and bands--most notable among them is improv-guitar legend Eugene Chadbourne--and each new song offers Pahl a chance to play with a separate gaggle of collaborators. Although he was responsible for writing most of the record, Pahl's associates function as more than mere mouthpieces for his wandering muse. Best among his helpmates is singer Missy Gibson and Duplex Planet mastermind David Greenberger.
The results of their efforts roll like a John Ford landscape littered with potholes. A goofball instrumental bleeds into a traditional folk song, which wanders into a free-jazz sax orgy that sounds worlds apart from the ukulele duel a few cuts later. Through it all, ringmaster Pahl holds court like a good freeform radio DJ, creating a place that's strange and homey; erudite and honeyed; diverse yet oddly congruous. Just call it Frank Pahl-esque Land.