Review: Hot Club of Cowtown Deliver Escapism and Virtuosity on 'Wild Kingdom'
It's well documented that, during the Great Depression, movie attendance boomed, as did the popularity of home radios. While that may seem counter-intuitive, as people were facing unprecedented level of poverty, it's a tell of just how important escapism is, and how ingrained the need for entertainment is to the human soul. While the political and social tumult of the past couple of years have brought some of roots music's best protest songs since the Civil Rights movement, it hasn't brought a corresponding uptick in lighthearted escapism. But that will change Sept. 27 as Hot Club of Cowtown releases their new album Wild Kingdom.
In their twenty years as a band, Hot Club of Cowtown has always marched to the beat of their own upright bassist. The trio has doggedly ignored trends in roots and Americana music in favor of continuing to refine their own blend of jazz and Western swing and, if Wild Kingdom is any indicator, they aren't about to let the craziness of current events knock them out of their lane.
The album opens with its breeziest song, “My Candy.” Written by fiddler and vocalist Elana James, it's a boppy big band dancer scaled down to three people, but never feeling small. Weaving the names of approximately the entire candy aisle at a well-stocked convenience store into the song's narrative, it's the kind of clever turn of phrase number that feels old, not in a way that makes you think it's dated, but like a forgotten old classic that the band dug up. I had to look at the credits to ensure it actually was written by the group.
Another James-penned love song, sort of, is “Near Mrs.” A list of the narrator's bad relationships, including “the one whose mom still paid his rent” and “the professor who had an MRS,” it even brings in a reference to country legend Buck Owens. The clear highlight of the album, the song could very well have come off as silly if not for the spot-on vocal delivery of James, who delivers seemingly innocent lines like “One said he'd marry me, until his wife found out” with a sly sweetness found in the best Roaring Twenties songs that were innocent enough to make it past the censors but enough innuendo beneath to make those in the know smile.
But James isn't the only lyricist in Hot Club of Cowtown. Guitarist and vocalist Whit Smith brings his own perspective to a number of the band's songs. The best of these is “Caveman”, a jazzy guitar stroller about the life of a cave painter whose art brings him a kind of prehistoric “rock star” status, complete with parties, women, and expensive clothes (wooly mammoth pants, specifically. Top that, Robert Plant!)
Another standout is “Billy the Kid.” The famous outlaw has been the subject of many a country and Western song, but Smith finds a new way to tell the tale, starting out where other tales end, with his shooting by Pat Garrett. The song unfolds as Billy's life flashes before his eyes in his dying moments. He laments “revenge got the best of me, and life just came unhinged.”
After several years of dedicating themselves to cover albums, Hot Club of Cowtown mostly sticks to original tunes here, but finds room for three classics. The best of these, unsurprisingly, is their take on Les Paul and Mary Ford's “How High the Moon.” It doesn't take many listens to Hot Club of Cowtown to find the Paul/Ford influence and James and Smith's vocals notch into the song like they were always meant to be there.
If we take the Depression-era movie analogy to its conclusion, Hot Club of Cowtown are the Charlie Chaplin to the rest of the roots music world's Orson Welles; dedicated to delivering lighthearted but expertly constructed songs to, if not drive out the darkness of the day, at least provide a well-lit dance floor to boogie away your cares, if only for a moment. There is arguably no band in modern roots music who delivers a perfect balance of virtuosity and escapism as well as Hot Club of Cowtown.
Want to catch Hot Club of Cowtown live? They currently have tour dates stretching well into the Spring of 2020, so there's a good chance they'll be hitting a city near you soon enough. You can catch their full slate of tour dates here.