Play That Funky Music, Cowgirl
It’s a classic story: girl meets girl. Girls fall in love. Girls start band. Girls take cross-country bike trip to tour new album. OK, so maybe there are a couple deviations from the norm in this tale of love, music, and flat tires, but they only serve to make it more charming.
Said girls are Abby DeWald and Amanda Barrett, California’s own Ditty Bops. Their first, self-titled album arrived in 2004, earning them spots on tours with Tegan and Sara and the Dresden Dolls (and, yes, that’s the first and last time those two groups will ever be mentioned in the same sentence). Their second album, Moon Over the Freeway, doesn’t stray far from the Bops’ standard repertoire of down-home, finger-lickin’, banjo and gee-tar originals, mixed with Andrews Sisters’ style vocal harmonies. While other female artists are jumping on the alt-country bandwagon by the dozen, the Ditty Bops sound decidedly and delightfully anachronistic. You want a slickly produced album with just enough twang to sound at home on the range? Stick with Neko Case. But if stride piano and strumming mandolins are more your style, you can’t go wrong with the Ditty Bops. Moon Over the Freeway is, at heart, a tribute to lazy summer days spent lounging in hammocks, drinking lemonade and shooting the breeze.
All that doesn’t mean that this lemonade isn’t spiked; one of the Ditty Bops’ strengths has always been their ability to inject clever dark humor and sly digs at authority into their songs. Not only that, but the Bops take aim at all who think that, because they look and sound like such dolls, they act like them, too. No question, Abby and Amanda are more dames than dolls, as is evidenced by the second cut on the album, “Angel With an Attitude”:
I’ve got God on my side
Who’s that? Hell, I don’t know.
But I’ll practice my religion
While I’m stepping on your toes.
All this while mandolins strum and careen in the background, and a Joplinesque piano struts away. Clearly, if you aren’t going to dance with these two, you should just as well get out of their way.
All that being said, the girls do let us down on occasion. They’re at their best when the tempo is fast and the licks keep coming, and producer Mitchell Froom’s piano is a lot of what propels this dynamic forward. The slower tracks, missing that driving force, lack a lot of what makes the Ditty Bops great. It’s as if, being forced to slow down and consider the ramifications of their boot-scootin’ actions, the Bops get mushy and resort to singing dreamily about moons in June and the like. So between the speedy insouciance of “Angel With an Attitude” and the whirling dervish that is “Fish to Fry”, we have a clunker like “Fall Awake”, a tired track that suggests the girls have disobeyed the title and phoned in the song from the comfort of their feather beds. The sole cover on the album is “Bye Bye Love”, a simple song that I can assuredly say has not been altered one whit since the Kennedy administration. The Ditty Bops’ version is no exception. The fact that Warner Bros. pushed this song on the album is no excuse for its mediocrity; with all the obvious talent on this CD, surely someone could have come up with a more creative working of the song.
But the Bops can’t leave us hanging for long, and the strong points on this album do outweigh the weaker ones. “Waking Up in the City” is vintage Ditty Bops, an ode to pierogies, pancakes, and picnics enlivened by slide guitar and sweet harmonies. The last cut on the album, “Your Head’s Too Big”, is about just that—someone whose head is so large it’s “poking through the atmosphere, rubbing elbows with the moon”. It’s clever but never cutting, mocking but not malicious. Like the Bops at their best, it’s at once a poke in the ribs and an invitation to pull up a chair.
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// Notes from the Road
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