It doesn’t pay to blink when Whapweasel are around. By the time your eyelids flick open again they’ve added another member or three to the line-up. The band that — according to an ancient Northumbrian creation myth — started out as a melodeon duo have now puffed themselves up to a ten-piece (restoring, in the process, the twin-melodeon strike force courtesy of über-squeezers Saul Rose and Simon Care).
Their last album, 2005’s Pack Of Jokers, saw them on the cusp of their transition from genial, straw-sucking folk-rockers to something altogether more rich and strange. If you visit their website before its imminently-scheduled overhaul, you’ll see them described there as an “English dance band”. Well, they’re all born in this kingdom and you can certainly cut a rug to them until your calves turn to jellies. Nevertheless, that modest epithet doesn’t begin to distil their infinite variety. You might as well call Mike Oldfield an English ukulele player.
The cover of their new album is a bit of a tease. It’s so minimalist that even the track titles are rationed to a single word apiece. You have to consult the CD booklet to see that Crisps is really Aren’t Crisps Brilliant?, that Vodka is actually No Money For Vodka, and that Brighton is — well, Brighton. But if all this leads you to expect something lean, pared-down and laconic, then think again. Colour is a teeming casbah of idioms and influences, a superstore of styles. Yes, you can dance to it (though you’d need three legs to strut your stuff to the title track), but once you’re flat on your back in a small lake of perspiration you can press Replay and wander for hours through the mazes and corridors of these complex and ever-surprising arrangements. Every twist and turn reveals a new vista.
Their rhythmic sense is wilier far than you’d expect from that “dance band” tag. Examples plucked at random include the foxy alternation of asymmetric 2:4 and 3:2 measures on Colour (the track); the unexpected morris-style “slows” towards the end of Crisps; the mbaqanga-style cross-rhythms of Moustache and Gatos. Elsewhere, as on Vodka and Bus, they hit such a compelling, brutish groove that it feels like a jackboot is stamping on your face and you’re really enjoying it.
Swirling over the top of all this is music far too multi-levelled and multi-faceted to describe as tunes. There are tunes in there, of course, as catchy and curvaceous as anything the Whaps have turned out in their ten-year recording career. But these merry melodies — mostly minted by Mike Coleman, Stuart Finden and Saul Rose — are taken to strange places by the various combinations of squeezebox, saxes, trombone, keyboards, cittern and electric guitar. If any of you remember The Nice’s crazed deconstruction of Leonard Bernstein’s America, you’ll get a rough idea of what’s going on here. Throughout, Pelion is piled upon Ossa stylistically: there’s ska, hi-life, swing, prog, east European, here a Don Cherry-style trumpet break, there a gorgeous Dave Gilmour pastiche guitar solo. There are even times when they sound like an English dance band. And right in the middle of this there’s Mayday, a sweet, lightfooted polka essayed on mandolin, melodeon and fingerpicked cittern, just to show they can do simple too.
In a sense Whapweasel are the missing link between earlier genre-benders like Tiger Moth and the musical cosmopolis that is Bellowhead. Certainly one can see a kinship between the Whaps and the B’heads, for all that they sound completely different to each other. There may even be a healthy rivalry between the two: I can report a rumour that they’ve challenged each other to a football match whenever they find themselves at the same festival. (But given that the Whaps’ Rick Kemp is the same age as Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps billiards might be a better idea.)
With a band as restlessly innovative as Whapweasel, an album can only ever be a snapshot of how they were at a particular time. Recent sightings suggest they’re still on the move, with songs now entering their repertoire for the first time. What other wheezes are they waiting to spring on us?
English dance band? That’s history, that is.
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