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Album review: Elpmas

Somebody has just got to write a book about this guy. Born Louis T. Hardin in Kansas in 1916 (and claiming to be a relative of the outlaw John Wesley Hardin), Moondog was blinded in an accident at seventeen years of age, spent some time among the Arapaho Indians (where he developed his life-long affection for percussion), and moved to NYC in 1943, where he cultivated an enormous beard and spent thirty years standing on a street corner playing his music and reciting his poetry. Hung out with Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker, was hailed by Philip Glass and Steve Reich as a precursor of minimalism, declaimed verse with Allen Ginsberg, appeared on stage with Lenny Bruce and Tiny Tim, made movies with William Burroughs. Suddenly, in 1974, he disappeared from his usual corner and many assumed he was dead; Paul Simon even went on television lamenting his passing. Turned out he had merely moved to Germany without telling anyone. He passed away for real last September.

For some time now, the German label Kopf has been releasing works by Moondog, but only recently have they received wider distribution. Among the numerous meretricious recording available are H'art Songs (Moondog singing his own "naive" songs to piano accompaniment); A New Sound for an Old Instrument (miniatures for two pipe organs and percussion); and Sax Pax for A Sax, minimalistic swing for an all-saxophone orchestra. But none of them are quite the masterpiece which his work Elpmas might just be.

Recorded in 1991, Elpmas is a thematic work dedicated to the aboriginal peoples of the world. Moondog composes very gentle music, led by his own marimba playing on many of the cuts, but interspersed with very "American" sounds like the banjo, discreetly sampled ethnic (African balaphone, Japanese koto, Indian bells) and environmental (children, rainstorms, some pretty badass sounding birds) sounds, and strings that sound directly lifted from the Renaissance court of some Medici. The occasional vocal incursion by a small men's choir (led, somewhat surprisingly, by Andi Thoma, one half of Mouse on Mars, who also co-produced) propels the narrative forward, most effectively on the charming faux horse opera "Westward Ho!". But this is primarily an instrumental album clad in a coat of many colours, and is thus appropriately concluded with a twenty-five minute "Cosmic Meditation", an ambient piece of Enoesque complex simplicity and beauty.