Sunday, March 8, 2015

Salsatic Vibrato I

"Step up Ladies"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

So, Smokelit Flashback is great when you’re in that eerie, mellow mood where you want to feel like you’re tripping balls in a black-and-white movie.  But I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that I’m all about the downtempo.  While Smokelit Flashback is definitely my longest playlist, it only holds that distinction by 4 tracks.1  Coming in at the number two spot is Salsatic Vibrato.

Unlike some, I didn’t discover retro-swing via the movie Swing Kids.2 which most folks credit with inspiring the retro-swing movement.  But, really, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy had already been around for a year, and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies for 4.  Given that both were West Coast bands, with BBVD located right in LA, it could well be the case that the bands influenced the making of the movie rather than the other way around.  Whichever way it happened, it wasn’t until the late nineties that retro-swing began hitting the alternative airwaves, and that’s where I discovered it.

Back in those days I was in DC, so my station was WHFS.  I don’t know if it was “Zoot Suit Riot” or “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight”3 that I heard first, but I was very quickly hooked.  I had very limited exposure to jazz of any kind at that point—the closest thing to jazz I listened to up to then was probably Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles—but swing is kind of infectious.  It crosses boundaries, somehow.  And certainly the albums behind those two songs (Zoot Suit Riot and Americana Deluxe4) are excellent albums, and consistently so.  Every song on them is great, and by the time we get to the end of this playlist we’ll have seen a lot more of them.  But I showed uncharacteristic restraint and only included one track from each here on volume I.

There are some other obvious choices here as well: “Jump Jive an’ Wail,” the classic Louis Prima tune revived by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers tracks are all obvious choices for a retro-swing mix.  And that’s what this mix started out as: straight up retro-swing all around.  But somehow it seemed limiting.  When I heard “Mambo No. 5” (also on ‘HFS), I fell in love with that as well, and then later with that entire Lou Bega album.  It damned sure wasn’t any kind of swing, but it had the same infectious combination of big brass and a driving beat that makes your body want to move.  Gradually, the parameters of the mix began to surface: it needed brass (although I will accept clarinet in a pinch), it needed to be happy, and not too slow.  It must make you want to dance and sing along and probably snap your fingers into the mix.  This covers a lot of ground, from the core retro-swing all the way out to ska, touching on salsa, Bega’s take on mambo, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are really not retro-swing so much as they are retro-hot-jazz.

I first heard Hot because a very good friend of mine had a copy.  He was quite excited by it, but then he was much more tolerant of jazz than I was.  I rather dug “Bad Businessman” (which I chose to center this volume), but the rest of it I was lukewarm on.  However, as I began to get more into retro-swing, I felt that I was shortchanging the Zippers and decided to give them another shot.  I’ve never regretted that decision.  As I said, they aren’t really swing per se, but much of their stuff has that same energy, plus they have a broader range than many of the “proper” retro-swing bands.5  In the end, I came to love SNZ even more than the others: certainly I own more albums by Squirrel Nut Zippers than by any of the other bands featured here.  There are two tracks off Hot here (including opener “Got My Own Thing Now,” which provides the volume title), and one off their debut album The Inevitable.

The ska on this volume comes in a neat little package, from Save Ferris, Reel Big Fish, and the Mighty Mighy Bosstones, all of whom we’ll hear from again in future volumes.  My appreciation for ska isn’t nearly what my love of retro-swing is, but the three albums represented here are all pretty damned great, and fully deserve their space.  Save Ferris’ inspired remake of Dexy Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” is especially rockin’.  In the midst of all this ska is “Sunblock” by my good friends emmet swimming.6  I don’t know the producer who decided to inject some horns into that song, but I’d like to shake his hand.  “Sunblock” is not really ska (not even remotely), but I thought it fit well in this block.

The other artist and album that you see here which will be important to this whole mix is Movits!.  I’ll never forget the night that Stephen Colbert introduced a “Swedish swing hip-hop jazz band” and I thought, what the fuck is that?  I pretty much sat there with my mouth open throughout the entirety of “Fel del av gården,”7 completely unsure what to make of this new hybrid.8  This is the sort of music that’s so catchy you try to sing along with it even though it’s not English.  Their swing instincts are finely honed, and the rapping has a fluidity that you can’t help but appreciate even with the language gap.  The first two volumes of Salsatic Vibrato had to be significantly reworked to accomodate Movits! once I got their album Appelknyckarjazz.9

Coming back to the proper retro-swing, the other album I discovered while trying to track down as much of the genre as I could was Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive.  Joe Jackson is one of those fellows who completely changes musical genres on a whim (and does so with almost every new album).  I had no idea that he had done this swing experiment—way back in 1981, even—until I starting getting into retro-swing.  Of course, Jumpin’ Jive is not really retro swing ... it’s more like a pretty faithful recreation of some great old swing classics.  Other than perhaps “Tuxedo Junction,” nothing on the album is particularly well-known, but if you pick up this album you’ll see why he chose the ones he did.

Salsatic Vibrato I
    [Step up Ladies]

        “Got My Own Thing Now” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Hot
        “Tank!” by The Seatbelts, off Cowboy Bebop [Soundtrack]
        “Jumpin' Jack” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “Jack, You're Dead” by Joe Jackson, off Jumpin' Jive
        “Brown Derby Jump” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Zoot Suit Riot [Compilation]
        “Mambo Mambo” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “Swing för Hyresgästföreningen” by Movits!, off Äppelknyckarjazz
        “Twiggy Twiggy / Twiggy vs. James Bond” by Pizzicato Five, off Made in USA [Compilation]
        “Bad Businessman” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Hot
        “Jump Jive an' Wail” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off The Dirty Boogie
        “Steven's Last Night in Town” by Ben Folds Five, off Whatever and Ever Amen
        “Come On Eileen” by Save Ferris, off It Means Everything
        “Sunblock” by emmet swimming, off Big Night Without You
        “Noise Brigade” by Mighty Mighty Bosstones, off Let's Face It
        “241” by Reel Big Fish, off Turn the Radio Off
        “Jumpin' with Symphony Sid” by Joe Jackson, off Jumpin' Jive
        “Lover's Lane” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off The Inevitable
        “Rockin' at Midnight” by The Honeydrippers, off Volume One [EP]
Total:  18 tracks,  62:59

The set is rounded out by some more interesting choices.  The theme from classic anime Cowboy Bebop is by Yoko Kanno in her guise as Seatbelts, another genre chameleon.  Ever since I heard the opening strains of “Tank!” I dug it, and when my coworker (the same one who turned me on to so much of the raw material for the first two volumes of Smokelit Flashback) lent me a copy of the soundtrack, I knew it had to go into this mix.

Next up, “Twiggy Twiggy” by the Pizzicato Five.  I saw the video for this song at some point, long long ago.  It was my first experience with J-pop.  It wasn’t as transformative as the first time I heard retro-swing, or seeing Movits! on Colbert, but it stuck with me, and I thought of it again when putting this mix together.

Then we have “Stephen’s Last Night in Town,” a very atypical Ben Folds track.  Despite not having any actual brass, I always thought it fit very well in with the rest of this bunch.  As I said, the clarinet will do in a pinch.

Finally, the Honeydrippers.  While most of Volume One is more suited to a different mix,10 “Rockin’ at Midnight” is a more upbeat tune that makes a very pleasant closer for this volume.  Although Brian Setzer doesn’t appear on the album, he did tour with the Honeydrippers, so I kind of consider them responsible for giving us the Brian Setzer Orchestra some ten years later, who will be another recurring player in the Salsatic Vibrato series.

Next time around,11 we’ll look at Salsatic Vibrato II, which doesn’t stray too far from the blueprint laid out here.


1 As I write this.  By the time you read it, those numbers will undoubtedly have changed.

2 Although I did see Bright Young Things.  But that was 10 years later.

3 Both of which will show up on Salsatic Vibrato II.

4 Most sources, including Amazon and AllMusic, list this album as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  However, I think Wikipedia makes a compelling case for the proper title.

5 Which statement itself shortchanges Cherry Poppin’ Daddies quite a bit, but never fear: I will redress that slight in future installations.

6 And I do mean the “good friends” part literally: we used to hang out at the lead singer’s house occasionally, and their lead guitarist was my company‘s first official employee.

7 Which will also show up on Salsatic Vibrato II.

8 Apparently the Swedes are excellent at this sort of mashup, as we’ll see when we get to Koop and Diablo Swing Orchestra, coming up in Salsatic Vibrato III.

9 Like Victorialand, from our last installment in this series, it was only available via import.  Luckily my brother was kind enough to get it for me for Christmas one year, as I’m too cheap to pay that much for music, even when it’s awesome.

10 Which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

11 I should probably make it clear that I do not promise that “next time” will be “next week.”

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