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April 8, 2013

Modern Accordion Jamz

by  |  April 8, 2013

By far the most punk thing Kurt Cobain ever accomplished musically was having Krist Novoselic whip out a goddamn accordion merely three songs into Nirvana's MTV Unplugged appearance, backing a song most MTV watchers were not familiar with: The Vaselines' "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam."

The accordion's so uncool it's cool. The only genre most casual listeners associate it with is polka, which, barring some Lou Bega-esque YouTube novelty, won't be seeing a revival anytime soon. And yet kids of all ages, including yours or mine, still listen up when "Weird Al" Yankovic arranges Papa Roach for the squeezebox on a little "Angry White Boy Polka." Same goes for They Might Be Giants' wise-nerd classic "Particle Man." Interestingly, the beleaguered instrument is pulled out to signify elegance just as often as goofiness: Witness Los Lobos' ultra-cool 1992 "Kiko and the Lavender Moon." And Jordan Knight, of all people, looked to the accordion for low-key, carnivalesque interludes within his wonderful 1999 stutter-funk comeback hit "Give It to You."

Even punks have used it for an extra dimension of sophistication, as with Green Day's credibly Celtic romp "Minority" or The Dead Milkmen's almost Disney-ready college-radio classic "Punk Rock Girl." But while the accordion softens up those bands, it actually toughens up The Klezmatics' hyper-klezmer "Man in a Hat" or The Pogues at their most New Wave on "London Girl."

Hip-hop, meanwhile, is ever willing to bring new samples into the fold: Clipse and Eminem folded ominous accordion into "Momma I'm So Sorry" and "Square Dance," respectively, while MF Doom's self-explanatory "Accordion," off the revered Madvillainy, offers a couple minutes of stoned, free-associating calm.

On the less tokenistic front, danceable Latin tracks like Calle 13's "La Jirafa" and Nortec Collective's vocoder-driven "Tijuana Sound Machine" use the instrument as a link to the past. Julieta Venegas and Lila Downs blend alternative rock with Mexican polyrhythms so fluently that even a total outsider could understand why the sexy, occasionally sinister instrument is a staple, stretching notes over the clipped lines of various hollow percussion.

Dylan, The Band, Dwight Yoakam and The Rolling Stones all picked up the accordion as a grounding agent so their classic rock wouldn't float away, while artists as varied as Shakira and Tom Waits (on "Cemetery Polka," though hardly his only use of the accordion for its street-junk qualities) delighted in the antiquity, the period-piece novelty of the thing. Paul Simon's groove is so unnatural and gangly that the accordion formed the meat of Graceland's classic "The Boy in the Bubble" itself, and it certainly adds muscle to Beirut's near-operatic "Scenic World."

Ever the emulsifiers, though, gypsy punks Gogol Bordello have probably done the best job of assimilating the accordion, with bellowing chants, electric guitars and devilish violins all descending on the same target, a danceable accordion interlude at the center. If you barely notice it amid everything else going on, well, that's the point.

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