You couldn't invent a band more conceptually busy than the Oakland, Calif., group Charming Hostess if you tried. The short version is that they're a sort of funk-folk band fronted by a close-harmony trio in the tradition of Eastern European women's choirs, with a repertoire drawn from pretty much every kind of folk music that's close to the American pop tradition: klezmer, European folk, African-American work songs, white gospel, you name it. Not to mention that the lyrics, when they're in English, are smart and elliptical, whether their sentiments are concrete ("I'm Not Hungry," dedicated to "those who died on Cosmo's altar") or abstract ("My body fragments are full of bread ... Thank God for the laws of physics"). And let's not even get into their stage outfits, except to say that the group's director, Jewlia Eisenberg, looks just great in her low-cut tuxedo and greasepaint mustache.
"Eat" is Charming Hostess' first full-length album -- they'd only released a single before, but they've already made a name for themselves on tour (a friend says they were the highlight of last year's Michigan Womyn's Music Festival). They work very hard to show how versatile they are, manically combining and flipping between styles. And they are awfully versatile: They love a lot of different kinds of music, they can pull off most of them convincingly and they come up with some clever, surprising hybrids. "Klezsex" is an ingenious rearrangement of an old klezmer tune, "My Greenhorn Cousin," with the three women singing the clarinet lines, Jenny Scheinman's fiddle blazing away and the bass locked in and pounding. Occasionally, though, their insistence on reconciling the seemingly disparate seems forced: Funk guitar, distorted violin and prog-rock rhythms don't quite go with the Bulgarian folk tune "Elenke."
Still, Eisenberg, whose name appears 19 times on the record's packaging, has some extraordinary ideas about what to do with voices in particular. She, Nina Rolle and Carla Kihlstedt can slide from Andrews Sisters-style euphony to tangy Balkan keening to wild, gasping vocal effects in a matter of a few seconds. She's as interested in polyrhythms as much as polyphony, and like a lot of European folk music, most of these songs are in time signatures more interesting than the straight 4/4 plod. Some of the band's instrumental arrangements have a bit too much of the conservatory about them -- there's rarely an excuse for fretless electric bass in 7/16 time -- but they're offset by delights like "Mi Nuera," a medley of Moroccan Jewish wedding songs that jitterbugs like Bow Wow Wow. And when they apply the tricks and techniques of the folk music they love to their original songs, neat things happen. "Ferret Said," a potentially leaden number about a codependent relationship, is spilling over with thoughtful borrowings from tradition; at every turn, there's some new detail of harmony or rhythm to enjoy.
Roots, Charming Hostess know, aren't just long-ago things: They come from whatever informs your life, ancient or recent. There's a precedent for their open-minded genre-plundering in the melting-pot musics of the New World, but there's also one in, for instance, the Residents, whose "Won't You Keep Us Working" is covered here. Eisenberg and her group can draw on dozens of traditions that have never met before, and even when the results are flawed, they can't be less than interesting; often, they're much more. Better that she should try too much than too little.