Matty Metcalfe: Have accordion, will time travel

Matty MetcalfeLocal multi-instrumentalist Matty Metcalfe already has an uphill battle, since he focuses pretty heavily on the accordion. On top of that, his new album consists entirely of tangos and an archaic French dance form called musettes which were widely consumed in the early 1900s, spreading between Argentina, France, and Eastern Europe, and making it over to Metcalfe's previous home of New Orleans around the time Scott Joplin was building the mold for American ragtime. Now Metcalfe is out to update them for contemporary audiences by rendering them with updated instrumentation and dropping in pop references–- think Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Tom Waits.

"If people forgot how great these songs are, whether they're from the 1910s or the 1980s, I wanted to remind them," he explains.

This is trickier than your average straightforward vanilla accordion cover (which would still be plenty amusing) because each of the forms he's following comes with a set of rules governing how the pieces must operate, and these will generally be totally out of whack with the original compositions. Think of how blues was formalized into the twelve-bar scheme, or how heavy metal almost always requires a distortion pedal. It's kind of like trying to rewrite a legal brief using only limericks.

"I think maybe the subtext is that I'm trying to show how music is cyclical or is interconnected or can redefine itself," he says. "'Build Me Up Buttercup' can be the theme song for There's Something About Mary, or 'I'm A Believer' for Shrek. A good song is a good song, and the form isn't as important."

And that goal is still intact, albeit more abstracted, on the original songs, where he's more interested in imitating master composers like stor Piazzolla instead of just quoting pop songs. For the most part they still sound pretty archaic, actually, since the electric guitars will take a back seat to more prominent elements like the waltzy 3/4 time signatures and the Django-inspired melodic phrasing, but that they're even the focus of a new album in the first place is probably still a step in the right direction. "People who haven't heard of these forms," says Metcalfe, "might get interested in some of these older people and the thread that exists between them and us.

Resolving the conflicts between contemporary audiences and historically significant material is all part of the fun.

"'Form' is a synonym for 'order' in music," he says. "It's like your body parts. Everybody has different parts that make them unique, but the thing that people relate to is whatever's on the inside. Whatever you can do to that to make yourself interesting, wearing earrings or whatever, gets you into the heart."

In other words, even major structural features can change without necessarily betraying the composition, as long as the crucial elements–- be they lyrical, rhythmic, or melodic–- are carried through. You can look and you will find them. Time after time.


Metcalfe performs Sunday, August 29 at the Louisa Arts Center to celebrate the release of his two new albums. Show is at 4pm, and tickets are $10.

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