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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Hot Club of Cowtown: Ghost Train

The Hot Club of Cowtown
Ghost Train

Never has a band been more aptly named than the Hot Club of Cowtown. They are one part Django Reinhardt’s and Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club de France and one part the sentimental, yet fun and honest, swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Hot Club of Cowtown has only three members, Elana Fremerman on fiddle and lead vocals, Whit Smith on guitar and lead vocals, and Jake Erwin on upright bass and vocals. Their sound, however, is a big one.

, the group’s fourth album, is a fine collection of originals and standards recorded, engineered, and produced by Murf Gorlix, who has produced such notables as Lucinda Williams, Buddy and Julie Miller, and Robert Earle Keen. Each breath, every slightly out of tune guitar, fiddle, and bass note of every one of these tracks and performances is caught by Gorlix in its nakedness and rings like crystal in the most musically accurate and honest way.

The album opener, “Sleep”, composed by Whit Smith and Dave Stuckey and sung by Smith, is an uptempo tune written in the style of 1920s hot jazz, possessing that Eastern European, Gypsy flair made so popular by Django Reinhardt. Smith’s vocal is convincing and intimate, and his guitar playing is authentic, harkening back to the runs of Charlie Christian and the incomparable Django. However, the lyric, ruing the effects of sleeplessness, lacks justification. Smith fails to tell us why he can’t sleep, only that his troubles keep him from doing so. A Berlin or Gershwin would certainly have implicated a love interest as the cause. Fremerman improvises competently on fiddle, as does the guest musician, Joe Kerr, on piano. “It Stops with Me”, another Smith composition, falls into this Eastern European, Gypsy jazz category as well, but the lyric is much stronger, painting an ominous picture of a hateful relationship.

The other song on this album written by Smith and Stuckey, “Paradise with You”, has a similar flavor. However, the tune is a bit disjointed, as if the verse is not quite connected to the refrain and bridge properly.

Elana Fremerman more or less plays the major key to Smith’s minor key, and sticks more closely to the twang and bop of American country and swing music from the ’30s and ’40s. The subjects of her lyrics are men and love, the metaphors familiar, but all is handled with care so as not to sound clichéd. Her song writing, as well as her fiddle playing, is deft and sensitive. She knows where she treads and attempts nothing new, only to honor the tradition, and she does so admirably. Her fiddle playing, particularly on the instrumentals “Fuli Tschai” (‘Bad Girl’)” and the traditional “Cherokee Shuffle”, is flawless, and it is not surprising to learn that she has been classically trained. Jake Erwin should also be commended for his percussive upright bass solo on “Fuli Tschai”, not to mention his rock steady time and musicality wherever he so much as breathes on this album.

Fremerman’s vocals are, like Smith’s, intimate, but possess something a tad more endearing, as if she were a bit of a prima donna that had somehow got mixed up with a bunch of whiskey drinking, cigarette smoking musicians. One can’t help but adore her properness and primness amidst such debauchery. Her performance of Rodgers’s and Hart’s “You Took Advantage of Me” is pleasant and fits well on this collection. The first time I heard “Secret of Mine”, another love song sung by Fremerman, I immediately checked the credits to see who had written it, whether it was Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, or some other legendary songwriter of the twentieth century. Much to my surprise, I saw that Elana Fremerman had composed it. However, it is Fremerman’s own “Before You” on which she truly shines vocally and as a composer of songs. She sings “Can’t remember what I thought romance was / Don’t know what I ever thought a dance was / Didn’t know what fire was hidden in a kiss / Never knew what happened ‘tween happiness and bliss” .

The most memorable tracks on , and the ones that will probably make it on the most CD mixes, are Richard Supa’s “Chip away the Stone” and “Pray for the Lights to Go Out”, a song written in 1916 by Will E. Skidmore. The former brings the three members of the Hot Club of Cowtown together in a moving three part harmony, all accompanied by nothing more than the simple strumming of Whit Smith’s acoustic guitar. “Pray for the Lights to Go Out” is a joyous romp and group sing about an overzealous preacher, complete with requisite hoots and hollers, and is a fine conclusion to a truly wonderful album.