Whapweasel, Pack of Jokers (Whapweasel Music, 2005)
Whapweasel are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, and what better way of celebrating than releasing a new album, their fourth I gather after a check on the band's Web site. For those of you who does not know, Whapweasel is an English eight-man electric ceilidh band, with a melodeon player playing band-written tunes, backed by keyboards, bass, electric guitars, cittern, drums and two saxophones. The latter, together with the lack of fiddles, is something of the trademark of the band.
Listening to Pack of Jokers you soon figure out the "Whapweasel formula." The melodeon delivers fast tunes with lots of notes in them, to a steady rock background. The guitars and the saxophones alternate between playing powerful chords to make things heavier and providing what could be described as counterpoint-tunes to the melody lines. Those counter-melodies are often riff-like in their construction and are delivered with great power. Syncopated beats and chords are parts of the brew, with clever, unexpected turns in the melody lines there to demonstrate that this is newly written music, not traditional stuff.
This is territory once uncovered by the likes of the eraly Albion band -- their Shuffle Off LP comes to mind, and Whapweasel carry on in the same tradition, developing and extending it slightly.
The main tune-writers are the melodeonist Robin Jowett, with a share in five of the 11 tracks, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Coleman, boasting an impressive six credits. But whoever is the main writer of the track there is also a co-credit for the whole band, to show that the finished tracks are group efforts. And the main feeling is that of a group playing. No individuals stand out as the stars of the band; this is very much a unity performing for you.
I must say the Whapweasel formula works very well. They have sense enough to do variations of it, such as creating good and varied introductions to the tracks, so if you have listened a few times and put you player on random you can recognize the tracks by the intros. But although the album lacks weak tracks, none stands out, either. Everything is well crafted and enjoyable, but does not grab hold of you directly. It is more an album to have running while you do other things, or maybe for dancing to. My favourite tracks are the opening "Hanging Off the Edge," which demonstrates the formula to perfection, "JWJ,", which breaks away from the formula, and "To the Trees," where the intro includes a guitar riff not too far from the opening of "Smoke on the Water."
With the power and enthusiasm Whapweasel show on the album, I suspect they are a killer live band. This kind of music always gets better when it is played for an audience. But let not that deter you from enjoying the record. Just remember to play it load!