Hot Club of Cowtown: Wishful Thinking

Richard Elliott

The Hot Club prove again that the western swing pioneered by Bob Wills was a vitally modern music that has yet to exhaust its sophisticated vocabulary.

Hot Club of Cowtown

Wishful Thinking

Label: Gold Strike/Proper
US Release Date: 2009-08-18
UK Release Date: 2009-05-04
Artist website

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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.