In the late 1990s, kids everywhere got into the swing revival, jump started by movies like Swingers, bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and a Gap ad featured khaki-clad youngsters swing dancing to Louis Prima’s 1930s hit “Jump, Jive an’ Wail”. Though relatively short-lived, this craze caused young people everywhere to adopt the music of their (possibly even great) grandparents’ youth. Though they need not have looked further than a box in the attic, kids began shelling out for new versions of these songs by bands like Brian Setzer Orchestra and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. In the same way these unknown bands used the music of the past to succeed in the ’90s music scene, geriatric rockers Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow (laughably irrelevant for years) and young crooners like Michael Bublé are targeting the aging boomer demographic by covering jazz standards (and in some cases writing new imitations).
Revival records like these vary greatly; some are shamelessly manufactured studio swill, and others harmlessly quirky labors of love. Western swing revival group Cari Lee and the Saddle-ites fall on the latter part of this spectrum, delivering a cute but unimaginative regurgitation of 1930s and ’40s artists like tragic “swing king” Spade Cooley, Bob Wills, and Tex Williams. Though not likely to fuel a nationwide trend (and more importantly, not intended to), this album fits into place beside the Bublés and Setzers: those who make a career of loving someone else’s music.
Brought to You Via Saddle-ite, is Cari Lee Merritt and husband Steve’s (not to be confused with the other Steven Merritt) fourth album of cutely catchy western ditties, mostly originals with a few covers thrown in. Songs like “We Tied the Knot” and “It’s a Doggone Shame” are fun to dance to, and great as background music. Would I want Cari Lee and the Saddle-ites to play at my birthday party? Hell, yes. But listening to the album, I felt the disappointment of all those youngsters who shelled out for that Cherry Poppin’ Daddies record: this music is hard to relate to, as it exists in another time.
The problem with revival records is not that they attempt to breathe life into a specific, pre-existing genre; rock bands do that successfully all the time. It is the artists’ refusal to bring this music up to date that creates the time capsule effect. Cari Lee and the Saddle-ites emulate their heroes so convincingly that they are rendered useless by flea markets and grandparents’ record collections. “We Tied the Knot”, a charging, fun country tune featuring Steve on vocals, is an example of a great song stifled by its dusty, retro-cliché lyrics: “All I do is sit and cry / You didn’t stop to say goodbye / You took your coat and took your hat / You took your heart and you left me flat.”
The album is full of moments like these, when the tune and tempo of the music has just about carried the listener away. But there’s a lack of connection, of sincerity in the lyrics that lessens its impact. There’s no doubt Cari Lee, Steven, and band mates Danny Sandos and Rick Quisol are accomplished musicians. Both Merritts’ voices are strong and assured, and there’s a good mix between haunting jazz (“I’m Hoping That You’re Hoping”) and foot-stomping honky-tonk (“It’s Alright by Me”). These songs’ biggest problem lies in their lyrics, much like those on Sondre Lerche’s new jazz album. If this record incorporated modern themes, even to the silly extent that Nellie McKay did on her strangely retro debut album, it would not be just good music, it would be relevant music. One of the aims of revival is to interest those too young to remember the first time, but I have a hard time believing any modern music lover would be too interested in stale love song like “Life is Sweet”.
Nevertheless, Brought to You via Saddle-ite chugs onward steadily like the outdated locomotives it recalls. It’s hard not to dance a little, smile a little, and feel altogether more cheerful after a listen. Cari Lee and Steve know how to have fun, but I think I’d prefer the flea market originals, resting somewhere with Prima and Chet Baker, far away from Stewart and Manilow.