Hamster Theatre

The third and best Hamster Theatre release finds melody-muckers Dave Willey and Jon Stubbs once again traipsing on the fun-wheel of suspended disbelief. From the opening strains of "Vermillion Hue Over Lake Lausanne" (an homage to the Swiss ensemble Nimal), the fuzzy Front Range rodents bake their brains on a loose-limbed, Jamaican beat of sunny rhythms and cheerful dispositions -- a mood that fades quickly when aggressive, prog-minded guitars shatter the island vibe with comical intensity. What follows -- as with any Hamster listening experience -- is an instrumental joyride full of twists, turns and head-on collisions. Besides spitting in the eye of classical music's regulation airplay, "What Makes You Think This Is a Good Place to Bring a Date?" questions the merits of restaurant dining when the more romantic option is to actually cook at home; it's a hilarious bit of quasi-chamber invention that seats hoi polloi at the mercy of a snooty but bumbling waiter. The ravishing "Jeanne-Marie," meanwhile, is a seductively cinematic masterpiece that conjures wintry sleigh rides from Doctor Zhivago.

Best of all, Willey and friends (including three regulars from Thinking Plague) expand upon an incidental sketch that Stubbs once intended to accompany an orientation video for Colorado's Butterfly Pavilion and Insect Center: The larval oddity metamorphosed into "Bug 2: The History of the United States" and found suitable sanctuary on Carnival. It's a bitingly funny, rapid-fire, time-elapsed musical montage of elements that carved America out of the wilderness: slave ships, Morse code, John Philip Sousa, the swing era, Carl Perkins and "Freebird" -- all climaxing with a blaze of commercialized grunge.

If that's not enough to inspire curiosity, consider the host of musical tools used throughout this disc: bouzouki, polkalele, harmonium, melodica, jaw harp and the trusty propane hose. They blend together with more conventional instruments like accordion, keyboards, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and guitarrón. And all of the percussion is so tight you could bounce quarters across it.

Oh, it's a surprise a second, with distorted Elizabethan minstrels ("Fanfare"), accidental ostinato ("The Caspian"), galley-slave-paced dread ("The Turn of Events") and reed player Mark Harris doing his best scat-daddy pontification à la Ken Nordine ("Bur Di Lie Town So"). A few refurbished faves resurface from 1998's live Siege on Hamburger City, too: "Tick Fever," "Vang Vang," "The Cat Song," and "Les Funfs," the full-bodied followup to the sidewalk-cafe musings of "Le Fumph." Balanced like a house of cards, this precariously beautiful undertaking -- mixed by Bob Drake after its drunken inception in a tarpaper shack -- dabbles in everything from Harry Partch and Tom Zé to Erik Satie and Lars Hollmer. It taps into pleasure centers you probably didn't know existed. Astonishing stuff!


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