Meet the Ditty Bops! The effervescent, whimsical, quaint Ditty Bops. The Los Angeles-based duo is a toe tappin’, finger snappin’, cheerfully wry concoction of western swing bands like Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, the heavenly harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel, and the sophisticated swirl of early jazz. But that’s not all. In fact, three disparate points of reference merely undersells and pigeonholes the band, which uses a diverse palette of sound to win your good graces.
The Ditty Bops are the brainchild of Amanda Barrett and Abby Dewald, who met by chance or, more enchantingly, perhaps by some twist of divine fate. It’s tempting to believe the latter; Barrett and Dewald’s vocals harmonize with such nonchalant fluidity you’d think they share the same mouth. The two were discovered by Warner Bros. while performing around L.A., and soon after had a record contract with ex-gonzo producer Mitchell Froom at the album’s helm. The Bops’ music doesn’t fit into the contemporary scheme of things; in other words, it’s not the tiresome, excruciatingly pensive singer-songwriter fare commonplace in today’s market. The group’s self-titled debut is jam-packed with stylistic allusions to Beatlesque pop, old jazz and country, vaudeville, Broadway show tunes, and the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Instead of searching for their identity through a clinical case of multiple personality disorder, the Bops stir up a melting pot of sound that is far more cohesive than one would initially suspect.
The Ditty Bops is seemingly split into two indefinable (yet markedly different) sides, with its first dabbling in styles of old. The album opens with “Walk or Ride”, a chugging jaunt that organically incorporates acoustic guitar, mellotron, mandolin, and skeletal percussion behind the instinctually intertwined harmonies of Barrett and Dewald. The song muses on the predicament inherent in a more harmonious or simple life. “You might find the meaning of life in the barrel of a rifle / If it’s pointed at a bird or pointed at your head,” the two sing in impeccable accord. “Me, I’d rather plant a tree that grows up tall for all to see / Until I need a pencil, then I’ll chop it to the ground.” The two strive to be idealistic, but ultimately settle for realism. The jazzy stroll of “Wishful Thinking” pines for a love encountered by chance: “When the leaves start fallin’ from the trees / When the birds start flirtin’ with the bees / When the wind starts blowin’ from the east to the west / Maybe you’ll be the one that I like best”. “Ooh La La” is a gritty specimen of a soured relationship, digging into a Southern blues riff of acoustic guitar and banjo and spiced with homegrown country harmonies. “Was it the fighting, was it the fist? / Was it adventure with a jealous twist?” the Bops wonder aloud in foreboding unison. “Was it desire for another’s kiss? / What brought the house down?”
The latter songs on the album keep the Ditty Bops’ varied inspirations in the rear-view mirror while forging more contemporary sounds. In the clock ticking urgency of “Gentle Sheep”, Barrett and Dewald look forward through dreamlike imagery and the pattering sprinkles of piano and guitar: “Rushing through time to find myself / Asking someone in the future if they’ll save me a space”. “Four Left Feet”, the band’s ode to bad dancing, opens with a guitar figure reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Piggies” and moves into a patient waltz laced with accordion. “No nonsense makes no sense at all / Forget what you don’t know,” the two confoundedly beg, adding: “I’ll ask you to dance / And if you agree / Me and you / That makes two with four left feet”. The album’s most intriguing track could be “Short Stacks”, which owes more to the moody indie-folk of Cat Power than the 1960’s variety. The song is built on an electronic beat, acoustic guitar, spooky keyboards, and includes some noir-ish electric plucks in its shadows. Froom’s production here harkens back to his experimental folk hallmarks with Suzanne Vega, and suggests a number of exciting possibilities for future Ditty Bops records.
“I’m feeling quite confused / By the people who refuse to see / A simple way of life that don’t make you a loser,” Barrett and Dewald sing in The Ditty Bops’ opening track, which nicely sums up their quest for good vibrations. It’s relatively easy to bah humbug the Ditty Bops’ modus operandi and write off their beaming positivity with a wave of a disillusioned, cynical hand. But such a gesture of Grinchian magnitude just feels wrong, and goes against the humble, hearty spell that the record casts so restlessly. Don’t so much as give in to the Ditty Bops, embrace them.