September 1999

The Hot Club of Cowtown - Tall Tales
HighTone/HMG HCD 8104
Released: 1999

by Marc Mickelson

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]From the opening magnetic minutes of track one, the instrumental "Draggin’ the Bow," through the last song, the traditional "Sallie Goodin," The Hot Club of Cowtown’s second disc for HighTone, Tall Tales, is a gas. I doubt that many rock bands expend more energy in their playing, but what I admire most here is the unified point of view: a nostalgic love of western swing, big-band crooning, ragtime, even jazz improvisation. All this is conveyed for the most part by three musicians on fiddle, guitar and upright bass. A word from the audio-reviewing lexicon comes to mind -- synergy -- but it’s deeper than that here as this trio delights in making its musical stew.

The choice of material is inspired, even a little zany. There are mostly covers, which sound both new and old simultaneously, along with four originals, the best of which is the sweet, hummable "Emily," which makes me wish I knew an Emily to tell. Both guitarist Whit Smith and Elana Fremerman on violin handle the lead-vocal duties, and I can’t say that one is better than the other. Both make the respective songs they sing their own. Bassist Billy Horton pounds the fret of his instrument into submission on the upbeat numbers and provides a strong foundation on the others. I suspect these three would be a joy to see live. I find myself saying some of the same things about this disc that I’ve said about the others I’ve recently heard from HighTone -- mixture of styles, respect for craft and tradition -- and they’re evidence of the uniformly inviting acts the label records.

It is a notable CD that can make you smile in admiration and tap your toe in equal parts, but Tall Tales pulls it off for me. This is a crossover recording of the highest order. More please -- and soon.