Some bands pick up influences on the road like souvenirs, evoking their far-flung travels with odd meters or exotic melodies. For the Los Angeles combo Fishtank Ensemble, years of relentless touring have pushed it in the opposite direction, distilling the band’s foundational influences.
The group is still impressively eclectic, but as it shed several members and instruments over the years, like the accordion and three-string Japanese shamisen, Fishtank has added depth and coherence to its playfully theatrical presentation.
Rather than gathering new sounds, the band has dug deeper into the Gypsy wedding raves, hot jazz and Balkan blues that were there from the beginning. Following up on 2010’s stellar “Woman In Sin,” Fishtank’s fourth album, “Edge of the World,” captures the band in a reflective mood. They’re still the life of the party, but they’ve got other things on their minds, too.
The album features traditional tunes, surprising covers and original numbers that are often indistinguishable from the traditional material, like the swirling “Goat Dance” by the fabulous French-born violinist Fabrice Martinez, who spent years living and playing with Romanian Gypsies. He founded Fishtank with vocalist Ursula Knudson and flamenco guitarist Douglas Smolens in Oakland about a decade ago. Soon joined by Serbian-born conservatory-trained bassist Djordje Stijepovic, the group was part of a cosmopolitan scene on which several bands seemed to vie for the title of most influences at work.
While Fishtank has survived by evolving via subtraction more than addition, its members all have multiple musical passions, and are often at their best when they’re crossing stylistic wires, like when Stijepovic applies his percussive slap bass to Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy jazz tune, “Rythme Futur.”
Drummer Matty Alger, a recent addition, plays on almost every track, and various special guests contribute on several tunes. But Fishtank’s defining sonic feature is Knudson’s eerie, ethereal musical saw. On the rembetiko “Smyrnieko Minore,” she transforms the earthy Greek blues into an otherworldly lament with the saw’s Theremin-like wail.
He voice is just as striking and distinctive taking on the naughty but nice inflection of Jazz Age flapper on Smolens’ jazz tune “Love Again.” She can also turn her bel canto soprano loose on Handel’s “Eternal Source of the Light Divine,” or rough it up to sound like a full-throated Belgrade belter on “Geljan Dade” by the great Serbian Gypsy composer Šaban Bajramovi?.
As the title suggests, “Edge of the World” is the work of a band that’s a little weary of the road, though still full of musical mischief. With spouses and kids in the picture, they’re talking about cutting back on their travels. But judging from the album’s closer, an impassioned version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Fishtank Ensemble won’t need to leave home to find new musical adventures. Sometimes it seems that the edge of the world is closer than you think.