American Café Orchestra, Nightmare Polka (ACO, 2011)

American fiddler Ruthie Dornfeld, Danish guitarist Morten Høirup, and Finnish bassist Tapani Varis, collectively known as American Café Orchestra, have a planet full of musical influences between them.  Their new CD Nightmare Polka takes full advantage of these influences, mixing the musical traditions of their respective homelands with an awareness of modern and post-modern compositional styles and a broad sense of experimentation.

Although many of the tunes on Nightmare Polka have a traditional flavor, all of the tunes except one are composed by members of the band.  Styles are often mixed and matched. "Sweet Nights Polska" is rooted in Scandinavian traditions, for example, "Copenhagen Hoedown" is a hybrid of Celtic and bluegrass, and "Oikotie" is a jig given a primal twist by Varis' use of the overtone flute.  The band do not generally aim for standard arrangements suitable for dancing, however.  Dornfeld plays "Egyptian Domino" with a hint of bluesy abrasion that will keep listeners from sitting too comfortably, while "Bell" is a peculiar combination of folk music and some slow, dark jazz. The two tracks that will make or break the album for most listeners, though, are the title track and the closing tune "Onion Cubes."  True to its name, "Nightmare Polka" is uneasy from the start, but breaks down completely into a mess of scraping dissonance that will either grab you attention or send you running. "Onion Cubes" is a jew's harp duet featuring Varis and guest musician Jouko Kyhälä. The interweaving harps create a bizarrely unusual sound, at times sounding deceptively simple or almost electronic in its repetitiveness.

The three members of American Café Orchestra have already established reputations in their respective folk music circles both as first-rate players and as performers with a sense of adventure. They play some really nice tunes on Nightmare Polka, but they also show a willingness to jar their audience and dare them to follow along. That probably won't please everybody, especially people who are just looking for some dancing tunes, but I still thought it was plenty of fun.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

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