[23 September 2009]
While the Hot Club of Cowtown have been a regular live presence around the globe in recent years, appearing at the Glastonbury Festival among other places, the group have not released a studio album since 2002’s Ghost Train. Wishful Thinking finds them traveling a consistent path. Bob Wills, Stéphane Grappelli, and Django Reinhardt remain prime influences and, when the group are tapping into the spirits of these ancestors, everything swings along just fine. An often thrilling live act, Hot Club have not always managed to capture the magic of their group dynamic in their studio work. To a certain extent that is true of the new album, although the issue now seems less a problem of live versus studio recording than one of choice of material. As usual, the instrumentals tend to trump the songs. Elana James’s violin and Whit Smith’s guitar are simply far superior instruments to their voices, although Smith’s vocals do contain a certain charm. This is not too much of an issue, as there are plenty of instrumental flourishes and solos in the songs to keep their impact strong.
The Hot Club are augmented on this release by drummer Damien Llanes, adding another rhythmic layer to the already driving combination of violin, guitar, and bass. Llanes’s presence is felt immediately on the opening track, a version of Wills’s “Can’t Go On This Way”, where he propels the band forward and provides space for Smith to give a typically fleet-fingered solo.
Half of the album’s songs are written by James and/or Smith. James’s “Reunion” suggests again that she is a better instrumentalist than she is a lyricist or singer, her gypsy-influenced introduction and solo being the highlights of the song. Smith, on the other hand, has a great knack for writing in the idiom with which the band are most identified: jazzy songs of the 1930s and 1940s. His “If You Leave Me” possesses a sense of phrasing that is straight out of the era and is beautifully complemented by James’s violin and his own guitar. Midway through, Jake Erwin’s bass break provides the perfect foil to the pair. It is often said of Hot Club that they largely escape being merely a retro act; here, again, they prove that the western swing pioneered by Wills and others was a vitally modern music that has yet to exhaust its sophisticated musical vocabulary.
Of the band’s other writing credits, James’s “Cabiria” is a far stronger song than “Reunion”, driven by a compelling beat and melody that work together in a manner suited to the group; her “Heart of Romain” allows the group to do what they do best, James fiddling up a storm, Smith providing some funky pizzicato, and Erwin finely matching it on the bass, while the rather average “What You Meant To Me” is improved by Llanes’s swift percussion. It’s not entirely clear why “One Step Closer”, a song co-written by James and Smith, requires a separately credited intro, given that it is far from the strongest piece on the album but it does contain decent bluesy violin but has little else to recommend it.
Smith’s “Carry Me Close” has a haunting refrain that makes the slightly plodding verses worth the wait. It is the least swinging of the album’s tracks but acts as a compelling moment of calm at the midway point. The album is completed by two adaptations of public domain tunes (“The Magic Violin”—a spectacular showcase for all four instrumentalists—and “Columbus Stockade Blues”), a cover of Tom Waits’s “The Long Way Home”, and two jazz standards, “Georgia” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Of these, the last is particularly strong. Elana James may be no Ella Fitzgerald but she deals with the song effectively and the simmering but understated instrumental backing is just what the song demands. Violin and guitar wring tears from the material, proving again that they are the real heart and soul of this band. Smith takes the vocal on “Georgia” but the guitar’s the star.
Interestingly, both these standards have been recorded by Willie Nelson, who the Hot Club have worked with previously and who himself has recently fronted a western swing project with Asleep at the Wheel. Wishful Thinking complements that album very well while marking a welcome return to recording for this talented group. While not a full success it is a fine reminder of the group’s potential.