well-read folk with harmonies

of age (Beacon)
Aztec Two-Step

By Allen Howie

Aztec Two-Step (Neal Shulman and Rex Fowler), whose name comes from an old Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem, has long been missing in action. In the early Seventies, they scored an underground hit with "The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On the Road)" from their self-titled debut album. Several records later, they seemed to drop off the face of the earth.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since those albums. But timing is everything and the popularity of harmonizing acoustic duos like the Indigo Girls and the Rembrandts apparently makes this an opportune time for Shulman and Fowler to resurrect their old persona. Luckily, those familiar harmony vocals, sweet melodies and chummy sense of humor all remain intact.

"Falling Down Clowns" evokes the Everly Brothers vocally, as the boys roll up their sleeves and survey the past twenty years. "War" is a sly commentary on the military imagery we use to describe the human condition (war on poverty, battle of the sexes, et al), while "Shantytown" ventures into David Baerwald territory, painting a grim tableau of life among the homeless.

But Aztec Two-Step looks inward, too. "Beth" is a love song that bounces along on a sweet blend of folk and country, while "I'm Sorry" bemoans the tricky nature of relationships, harnessing country instruments to a reggae beat. "People Are Strange" is a whimsical acoustic pop ballad, while "Your Anybody's Me" is a charming, quirky proposal.

The mood quickly shifts back to its earlier global perspective on "Ban Vinai," a narrative on the death of a culture in the remote reaches of northern Thailand. Change remains the theme as the fellows acknowledge just how different the music business is now in the cheery "A Flock of Seagulls."

The record closes with a trio of pretty tunes. "Hold Your Dreams Close" offers some plainspoken advice for dealing with life's misfortunes, while the beaming "It Just Happens That Way" provides peppy (maybe too peppy) reassurance that it will all work out fine in the end.

But the final cut, the moody "I Only Sleep With Strangers," is an uncharacteristically somber warning against letting anyone get too close. The song's first-person perspective shows such isolationism for what it is.

As with Aztec Two-Step's older albums, nothing here is likely to change the world, or even attract any airplay among radio's petrified playlists. But in times like these, a pleasant, melodic and thoughtful record is an accomplishment of its own.