Within the first few bars of “My Candy”, the breezy and swinging opener to Wild Kingdom, it becomes evident that the Hot Club of Cowtown haven’t lost a step. For more than two decades the group has dazzled audiences across the globe with their blend of tin pan alley standards and solid original tunes, all distilled through a tight Western swing vibe. Since coming together in the mid-’90s, guitarist Whit Smith, violinist Elana James, and bassist Jake Erwin have dished out a fiery blend of country and jazz, and their latest only reenforces how skilled and tight the trio stands today.
While it sounds like a classic from days past, “My Candy” is an original from James brimming with charm and wit. It’s not a pastiche song of retro callbacks–it’s a rollicking, lovable tune from start to finish. By contrast, “Last Call” is a sentimental waltz featuring soulful vocal harmonizations from Smith and James. A rumination on mortality masked as a drinking song; it has enough heart to bring a tear to even the most cynical eyes. The hilarious soon-to-be crowd favorite “Near Mrs.” is an easygoing tale of failed romances, wine drinking cowboys, and a lovely nod to Buck Owens.
While their sounds harken back to the Western swing of Bob Willis, no one could ever accuse Hot Club of Cowtown of lacking originality. They don’t write songs like the playful “Caveman” or cover Les Paul/Mary Ford classics from a place of detached irony. The band plays with sincerity and love of their forefathers (and a knowing wink to the novelty of radio classics from the days of yore). The vocal harmonies throughout “Three Little Words” aren’t a coy trick of false honesty; they are a ray of sunshine that emanates pure joy.
The original number “Easy Money” is an ideal song for a jukebox in a roadside dive bar, while the Scottish classic “Loch Lomond” becomes a fun vehicle for trading solos. Covering a storied classic like “How High the Moon” is a risky proposition for a group that so clearly loves the warm guitars and solo breaks of 1950s jazz. Hot Club offer their fantastic take on the standard, singing the verse at a slow tempo before doubling the tempo and trading burning solos. It pairs so well with “Rodeo Blues”, an easygoing gem that sounds like a long-lost classic track Patsy Cline never got around to recording.
Wild Kingdom is loaded with character and charm, a testament to the energy and nuance Hot Club still have to offer so long into their career. It might not break any new ground, but their 11th album demonstrates just how much fun this well-seasoned trio can still have. The summer months may be over, but Wild Kingdom packs enough charm and joy to warm things up just a bit longer.