A strong outing from a band who know who they are and aren’t afraid to embrace it.
Back in 1994, guitarist and singer Whit Smith answered an ad vocalist and violinist Elana James placed in the Village Voice calling for bandmates who shared both her dedication to traditional music and her eclectic taste. It took the pair a couple of years to fully realise the band that is now Hot Club of Cowtown, but that unique musical ethos that James laid out in her advert has remained, even as the band now celebrate 25 years together with over a dozen albums released.
‘My Candy’ is the album opener, and it’s as good a song as any to introduce even the uninitiated to the sound of the band: Western swing with a strong flavour of jazz. The vocals James provides are sweet in their sincerity, managing to avoid the pitfall of coming off as cloying when paired with the sentimental lyrics (“Used to have a sweet tooth, but now it’s plain to see / I’ve found the sweetest candy and my candy’s sweet on me”).
‘Last Call’ is gentle and more akin to folk than anything Western swing or jazz, but still compelling and lovely in its simplicity. ‘Near Mrs’ has a light swinging Americana about it, the title a clever play on words, with further clever lyrical content to be found when James laments the men that got away in the lyrics: “Oh I dated my professor, but he had an “M.R.S.,” and way back when the guy from INXS / New York City, he wore a skirt, and a navy fighter pilot who just wanted dessert / Fifteen ran for governor, he said to me, he had two girls but he was lookin’ for three.”
There are only three songs on ‘Wild Kingdom’ that weren’t written by the band, the first being a breezy although not an especially memorable cover of the 1930s theme from the eponymous film ‘Three Little Words’. The band arguably have more success with their takes on the traditional ‘Loch Lomond’ and Les Paul and Mary Ford’s ‘High Upon the Mountain’, both tracks feeling like a natural fit with the rest of the album, all while the band inject their own character to things.
‘Billy the Kid’ is possibly the darkest thing on the record. Smith takes lead vocals duties, his voice giving extra gravitas to the lyrics as he croons against a smoky bass and sultry strings. “They’ll never take this soul alive / I’m staring past the rafters,” he states from the perspective of the titular outlaw. “And maybe you think you’ve got your man / But I’ve escaped to the hereafter.” Another track lead by Smith on vocals is ‘Ways of Escape’, a seductive blues laden reminder to keep striving for your dreams.
‘Rodeo Blues’ puts an interesting spin on things, crossing metaphors with a rodeo rider and a saviour in a relationship. On ‘Easy Money’ Smith vows to rid himself of a girlfriend who sees him as a cash cow more than a love interest (“You’re my honey / As long as I got the dough”). The string laden ‘Before the Time of Men’, with its mix influences that call back to central Asia and manouche jazz, takes on the ever urgent issue of the dreadful damage man has done to the planet. “Come tell your story, won’t you sing to me again / Of how you roamed the high plateau before the time of men? / Fluted yellow rows of bone beneath a burning sky / They may take your body, but your soul will never die,” James sings of a long since gone animal.
“I’m a prehistoric rockstar, eccentric at a glance / Keep a Saber-Tooth Tiger, I wear woolly mammoth pants / I’m an underground sensation, from a million years BC / I’ve survived through evolution, and my work can still be seen,” Smith sings along to a swinging beat on ‘Caveman’, and one can’t help but draw parallels with his own career in Hot Club of Cowtown. Eccentric it’s true, and an underground sensation indeed, this is a band that make their mark with their own unapologetically unique brushstrokes, the impression they make not only making the musical landscape richer now, but in the future too.