[3 January 2012]
Shrewdly retro-chic, just slightly kitsch and possessors of enough talent (you try singing those close harmonies without an Auto-tune in sight) to make it work over the long haul, the Puppini Sisters—Marcella Puppini, Stephanie O’Brien and Kate Mullins—are to pop music what Dita Von Teese is to the adult entertainment industry. Four albums into an unlikely career that’s seen these wanna-be ‘40s dames accumulate a fan base which includes Prince Charles, Michael Bublè and Mad Men designer Janie Bryant, who worked as Creative Director on the album artwork, the Puppini Sisters are both a glossy novelty act and straight-faced revivalists of a lost pop-jazz style—think Andrews Sisters and anyone who ever sounded like the Andrews Sisters. The group shot to fame in the mid/late 2000s with their quirky ‘40s swing versions of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”. This mixing of old and new was both winning schtick and best taken in small doses. Alas, on their latest offering, Hollywood, the Puppini Sisters have traded in smart, modern pop choices for the by now rather familiar standards that initially inspired them. Additionally, listeners will quickly discover they’ve wandered into something of a concept album. Feel like beating those recession blues with a tribute to the glamour and excesses of vintage Hollywood? Anything beats austerity.
Hollywood gets off to a promising start. On the girls’ self-written title track—the sole original here though it sounds like a bona fide jazz standard—we eavesdrop on a late-night conversation. The pretty small-town girl is contemplating a move west to make it as an actress while Marcella, Stephanie and Kate egg her on. It’s a nice tribute to a more innocent time and also swings mightily. In L.A. and apparently learning fast, the girl, now presumably waiting on tables, tells her new beau it’s precious stones or nothing on “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. The acting career might not have panned out but she’s not going back to Pleasantville either. Transferred to a minor key and snugly arranged, the Sisters do a fiendishly good job of putting their own mark on one of Marilyn Monroe’s signature tunes. From here style begins to get the better of substance as the girls trot out competent versions of the tried and true. The are these public domain yet “I Got Rhythm” and “Moon River” get traditional readings but the Andrews Sisters sing Tom Waits arrangement on Cole Porter’s “True Love” is refreshingly unexpected. A cutesy version of “Good Morning” (from Babes in Arms in case you were wondering) is a total misstep.
In fact, if the Puppini Sisters are “the Andrew Sisters on acid” as someone memorably put it, this song is more like Julie Andrews on prescription meds. Arlen & Koehler’s “Get Happy”, made famous by Judy Garland, gets a nice folksy-tinged makeover but Marcella and her cohorts sound more convincing telling Big Daddy to cough up gems than they do calling the flock to the river. West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty” gets an update as a Gallic waltz, which actually comes off as a bit spooky: magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Kurt Weill’s “September Song” contains just a touch of 1960s Nashville—the Puppini Sisters could make a cracking little country album if they so chose—and is one of the record’s highlights. And no, it won’t take long to recognize that melody on the closer “Parle Plus Bas”—of course it’s the theme from The Godfather sung in French. The song is nicely done but one has to ask: why is the Signorina Marcella Puppini giving us two numbers in French (the other is Bardot’s rather tiresome “Moi Je Joue”) without so much as a whisper in her own native Italian? Cosi è la vita.
What’s really missing on the Puppini Sisters’ latest is the novelty shock of hearing the new dressed in old but glamorous clothes as has been their specialty. Too many of the songs are just overly familiar. Still, there is plenty of retro fun to be had and the band swings like mad. While some critics have panned the record as just one more soundtrack to the girls’ glitzy retro-chic videos, Hollywood should also be heard as a heartfelt and accomplished tribute to a style of music and life that went west many moon rivers ago. Let’s hope the Puppini Sisters can find a more modern context for their talents to prevent their career from creeping in the same direction.