Home of the range

Randy Erwin belatedly releases an astounding, varied work

The cassette links his yodeling cowboy past with the internationally diverse work that followed with Cafe Noir. Featuring a mixture of originals (including "The Orange King," "The Long Slow Slide," and "The Battle of the Five and Dime"--all of were recut for Cafe Noir's 1993 Windows to the Sea), country classics (Gene Autry's "I'll Go Ridin' Down that Texas Trail"), and other compositions originally written in Greek and Romanian, it's a remarkable collection--coherent perhaps not in selection, but in execution.

Assisted by Cafe Noir's Gale Hess (violin an clarinet) and Norbert Gerl (on viola)--both of whom helped arrange the material for the tape--and Beledi Ensemble's Jamal Mohammed on percussion, guitarist-synthesizer player Gianpierro Scuderi, and bassist Mike Pope, Erwin here is no longer just a yodeling throwback (if, indeed, it's not enough to be just such a thing). Rather, he's an extraordinary singer, not unlike Mandy Patinkin during his more restrained moments--able to scrape the highest notes without breaking, then able to dip to wrenching lows. Erwin's is a voice that belongs on a stage in a cavernous hall, where it's given plenty of room to float and explode and surround the listener.

When Erwin sings "Tut I Tschi, Man I Tschi" (which first appeared, sans vocals, on Cafe Noir's eponymous debut in 1988), he doesn't even sound like himself; he imbues the Gypsy lyrics with a heartbreaking poignancy intelligible even when the words are not. And behind him, the band plays in a low, mournful tone, Hess' clarinet moaning the melody as Scuderi picks out delicate notes in rapid-fire succession.

The versions of the "The Orange King," "The Long Slow Slide," and "The Battle of the Five and Dime" recall the versions that would appear later--they are perhaps a bit slower, a bit more bluesy--and "I'll Go Ridin' Down that Texas Trail" blends Western swing with a Gypsy beat. But "Padam, padam" (made famous by Edith Piaf) is perhaps the cassette's highlighta bizarre piece of French-and-English-language dance exotica, not so unlike something Bryan Ferry might attempt in a less smarmy mood.

"When I did the cowboy thing, basically I got it all out of my system," Erwin says of his ever-expanding repertoire--keeping in mind this material is already more than five years old, though it sounds as fresh as tomorrow. "I explored a lot of that stuff, then I got into Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, which was more Western swing. And then it was just natural to go into Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole, that direction. I've been listening to almost nothing but Sinatra for a year. I bought the Capitol boxed set, and that's really affected my phrasing.

"And moving into 'Padam, padam' and 'Tut I Tschi' and the stuff with Cafe Noir, it's kinda like when Miles Davis said by the time he got his record out, he had gone on to something else. It's just probably not a good way to be if you want to make a lot of money.

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