Kronos Quartet: Floodplain – David Harrington & John Sherba, violins/ Hank Dutt, viola/ Jeffrey Zeigler, cello – Nonesuch 518349-2, 78:50 ****:

"Floodplain" is an interesting CD on a number of culturally complex if hopelessly interwoven levels. First of all, it’s a series of 12 addicting tracks that, with the help of musicians including the musical collective Ramallah Underground and, on tambura, Terry Riley, pay homage to the musical legacy of ethnic communities lying along a broad Middle Eastern front.

Ironically, Kronos winds up, at least in this release, very much in a place like the one they fled from more than a quarter century ago. Their smooth, occasionally smarmy arrangements evoke a time when exotic music from the East was a common resource for dance bands in slinky cabarets throughout Germany and France. I thought at first this was a “Back to the Future” resonance, but it turned out to be pure “Star Trek": sophisticated, ingenious, chic, wonderfully creative and tinged with nostalgia for camp.

Where’s the bite? It sounds like the production team, including the players, became seduced by the musical material and then became lost in the intricacies and focus which putting this CD together must have demanded. The surly picture in the liner notes of Sherba (the second violinist), Zeigler (the cellist), Harrington (the first violinist) and Dutt (the violist), shows four guys out to make someone pay. At least musically, however, they don’t totally deliver.

There’s no denying the extraordinary fidelity with which the Quartet rescues musical visions from the ethnic legacies which the civilized West so casually scatters into dust. They’ll probably head for China next. Due to the thoroughness with which Mao’s Great Revolution destroyed old customs, almost nothing remains of the vast country’s legacy (most of what we hear now as "folk music" was written afterwards).

The arrangements, many done by Kronos themselves, are polished and slick even when the actual individual sounds are astonishing, raw, brittle, unpredictable, violent, even touched on one track by some old-fashioned "musique concrète." The recordings, made with a few exceptions at Architecture in LA, match the performances with a perfect blend of richness and clarity.

The pleasure of listening to this album is increased by Anastasia Tsioulcas’s liner notes. Although they verge on the hallucinogenic at times, she’s right to favor poetry over sobriety. After all, it’s what Kronos, even in a relatively tame release like this, is all about.

– Laurence Vittes