Photo: Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Rachael & Vilray Update Swing-Era Music on Their Debut

Rachael & Vilray is an absolute reflection of the jazz era while also firmly integrating the sound and energy into the contemporary moment.

Rachael & Vilray
Rachael & Vilray
4 October 2019

With the contemporary penchant for new genres and genre fluidity, a purist return to a genre of yore is uncommon but welcomed. As is the case for Rachael Price’s and Vilray’s swing/jazz-inspired LP Rachael & Vilray. Whereas the album is a departure from Price’s Lake Street Dive’s Americana standard, Rachael & Vilray is an opportunity to delve deeply into the jazz and swing eras that inspired them. The duo first met when they were studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, but it took a decade for them to begin collaborating. Their debut as a duo, Rachael & Vilray, is a dynamic showcase of their musical interconnection.

Rachael & Vilray conveys rich narratives and genuine storytelling. “Without a Thought in my Heart” illustrates a first love’s short-lived giddiness that only turns sour as the relationship shifts. Ending the song with “It wasn’t smart / I played my part / Without a thought for my heart” encapsulates the narrative culminating in a completely different emotional state than in which it began. Likewise, on “Treat Me Better”, Price and Vilray demonstrate the frivolity of materialism when underscored by callousness. The luxury showered onto the song’s narrator is eclipsed by the small acts of thoughtlessness, such as forgetting to “pack a sweater for me”. In this way, Price and Vilray masterfully capture the swing era’s reliance on storytelling as a method to transmit emotion from the singer to the listener.

Rachael & Vilray lyrically evokes the sweet innocence typified by Tin Pan Alley and the musical theater of the 1930s and 1940s. “Do Friends Fall in Love“, for example, could easily be transposed into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical where the protagonists are blinded-sided by their love for one another. Price and Vilray capture the era’s atmosphere by their judicious use of lyrics and clipped phrasing as in “Around the world / We’ve shared these roads together / Every journey is grand.” Here, the duo exposes the emotional authenticity in a candid and intimate manner.

Price and Vilray revisit this technique in “Inside This Heart of Mine” when she sings, “Blue skies taunt me / Memories haunt me / You don’t want me.” Unequivocally these economic lyrics serve to enhance the standards as barefaced expressions of emotion, thereby centralizing the populist appeal. Throughout the album, Price’s and Vilray’s vocals enmesh wondrously and engender the song’s sentiment while establishing their chemistry as a duo.

The album is also loaded with humor and brazen references to sex. In “At Your Mother’s House”, the track’s melancholy is broken by the capricious, and just a slightly biting refrain, “She shows me pictures of little you in the nude / And it would be rude of me / Not to let her see / The ones that I have took of you.” With Price incorporating scatting in “Let’s Make Love on This Plan”, the lyrics, “This cabin’s shaking, let’s start taking all the blame / Darling, let’s make love on this plane!” situate the track as a comic-courtship piece. Yet the blatant use of sex is not anachronistic but an homage to Irving Berlin’s “Everybody Is Doing It Now”. In these particular cases, humor and sex are devices alleviating the tension and are stalwart markers of Tin Pan Ally and Rachael & Vilray‘s appeal.

The jazz era deeply inspired both Price and Vilray, yet Rachael & Vilray is not a reiterative songbook. Rather, the album is composed of ten original pieces and two covers. Cuban composer Pedro Junco Jr.’s 1943 “Nosotros”, sang in Spanish by Price, is beautiful and exhibits her ability to transform soft vowel sounds into a commanding note. Price and Vilray also cover Milton Drake and Louis Atler’s “I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart,” popularized by Peggy Lee. A standard of the American songbook, Price’s and Vilray’s version is equally formidable.

Between Price’s and Vilray’s vocals and instrumentation, the album at times sounds linear. However, on repeated listens, it becomes apparent that the duo is backed by significantly more musicians than previously discerned. That, in part, informs the album’s warmth and intimacy but also renders their fellow musicians as mere support devices.

To the uninitiated, Rachael & Vilray, sounds like an album of jazz and swing standards. That’s a testament to Price’s and Vilray’s individual musicality and their ability to cohere their talents together. Rachael & Vilray is an absolute reflection of the jazz era while also firmly integrating the sound and energy into the contemporary moment.

RATING 7 / 10