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Big Top, Soda Pop

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Album Review

Reaching desperately for a genre to stuff this madcap trio into, critics scratch their heads, yearn for the days when labels weren't required, then admit defeat, and toss Mad Tea Party into folk out of pure frustration. Hey, they use ukuleles, kazoo and a slide whistle, so what do you expect? Nothing less, but the Tea Party deserve better. But let's be clear, although they definitely employ some folk elements, they are not a folk group, and on their latest album, Big Top Soda Pop, their third and most accomplished set to date, the trio weave in so many different genres that perhaps it's best described as Americana for the modern generation. Shreds of ragtime, tatters of R&B, touches of blues, bursts of rockabilly, slivers of C&W, tinges of hillbilly hoe-downs, lashes of pop, snippets of rock, a feathering of folk, and even, on the title track, the hurdy-gurdy sound of the circus; all are threaded through the set But as eclectic as it, this Tea Party has a theme, or at least a distinctive sound that makes even the most diverse numbers instantly identifiable as the Mad one's own. Partially this is down to Ani Worthern's vocals, sweet and upbeat or calm and soothing, her come-hither intonations draws one straight into the songs, she's the perfect circus barker for this Party. But the group's other signature is their down-home, kick-back feel, most evident on finger-pickin' numbers like "Brotherhood of Man," "Muddy Water, Butterfly" "62 Years" (just set the drum kit up on the porch), "World of Novelty" (which adds a honky tonk piano and tap-dancing to the fun), and "Berry-Belvin." Dove-tailing these types of songs are equally laid-back, folk-flavored numbers like "Do You Have What It Takes," "Music Makers" (whose lyrics are adapted from an 1874 Arthur O'Shaughnessey poem!), and a scintillating, more upbeat cover of Melanie's hit "Brand New Key." Many of the tracks are plumped up with guest musicians who add drums, fiddle, guitar, piano, organ and more to the group's own repertoire. Yet even impetuously driving numbers like "62 Years" or "Whistle Pig" still have an easygoing air that really defines the group's sound. Add thoughtful lyrics covering a wide range of themes, and Mad Tea Party have created one amazingly, tantalizing album.

Big Top, Soda Pop, Mad Tea Party
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