People often wonder why critics seem overly attracted to music well outside the mainstream. There's a simple answer: We've heard too much. We know most of the tricks to crafting shiny pop music. We know that craft may successfully trump a lack of inspiration (witness all the famous producers and their nearly-faceless proteges), but the unusual will always prick up our ears. Even if it isn't great.

I had a longstanding argument with the publisher of a long-ago-folded music rag. He loved cover bands, telling me "I prefer competence to originality." "I want to hear something new," I would counter. There's no logical solution to this conundrum. It all comes down to personal preference.

Actually, there is an answer. But it rears its head very rarely.

Better Than This

Enter Kotorino. These proto-Tin Pan Alley tunes (decorated with generous doses of Dixieland, Latin, Gypsy, blues and loungey rock) are played by an acoustic chamber pop collective (full horn section, with winds and strings as necessary) and immediately arrest the ears.

The craft is immaculate. And yet the arrangements are loose, giving both the players and the singers plenty of room to add personality. Most importantly, though, these songs are competently written. In other words, after the first few blasts it's pretty clear where the song is going. Kotorino plays by the book--but it wrote this book, too. Well, gave the book a heavy edit, anyway.

"Chamber pop" is a reasonable description, but it's too limiting. "Americana" is a lot closer (if you take as your root the Americas, rather than just America). But that's one of the vaguest and most useless genre classifications around. I've always been partial to "good music," but that is (deliberately) even more vague.

Classification doesn't work here. The writing is tight and top-notch. The arrangements are bright, open and completely unprecious. The performances are uniformly enthusiastic. The music is, indeed, "very good."

There are folks who won't like Kotorino on principle. People who say they hate "jazz," people who don't like horns or strings. You know, silly people. I understand their point of view. The horns and strings are used in vaguely unconventional ways here. At times, Kotorino sounds like an acoustic version of Roxy Music. I'd say that's a pretty high compliment, but not everyone would agree.

Taste is variable. However, no one can argue about the quality of the writing or the playing. In other words, Kotorino may not be your style. But it plays quality original music with style and elan. I think my old sparring partner and I would agree on these folks. And if we don't, it's because he's still an idiot.

Some things never change.

Jon Worley

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