Music

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
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image