Sunday, March 22, 2015

Salsatic Vibrato II

"King of the Monkeys"

[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.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

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.]

Just as with the first two volumes of Smokelit Flashback, the first two Salsatic Vibrato’s were developed simultaneously.  I was very into retro-swing at the time,1 so I had no shortage of tracks, and there was plenty there for two full CD’s worth by the time I got to organizing.  So, it shouldn’t suprise to see many of the same names back for more: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy provides a whopping 3 tracks (just on the verge of too much), all from the same album as before (Americana Deluxe); Joe Jackson returns with another track off Jumpin’ Jive; and Movits! too is back, with two more tracks from mainstay Appelknyckarjazz.  And we get Lou Bega’s big hit off Little Bit of Mambo.

And of course our old pals Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.  CPD is a much more interesting case than the other retro-swing bands, because they’re not actualy a retro-swing band.  Actually, they have a very eclectic style that goes from retro-swing to power ska to something that can only be described as hardcore-inflected 50’s rock.2  Only 2 or 3 songs on each of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ first few albums were full-on retro-swing.  So what exactly is Zoot Suit Riot, you may ask?  Simple: it’s a compilation album.  Released by CPD’s label in what I imagine was a desperate attempt to cash in on the burgeoning retro-swing craze, it collected just the retro-swing tracks from their first 3 albums, and ended up achieving far more popularity than any of the albums it compiled.  Popularity is good, but unfortunately it meant that people ended up getting the wrong impression of the Daddies.  Wikipedia suggests that the band members themselves may have regretted Zoot Suit Riot; I bet it wasn’t a pleasnt experience to have legions of new fans pissed off at you for “changing your direction” when what you’re actually doing is the exact same thing you’ve always done.  Although I too am one of those folks who don’t particularly appreciate the Daddies’ non-retro-swing tracks as much, I do absolutely respect their very wide range of styles and their ability to transmogrify themselves completely from one track to the next.3  In the meantime, though, you’ll have to be satisfied with “Zoot Suit Riot” here, which is after all one of their greatest tracks.

I can’t neglect Squirrel Nut Zippers either.  This time I’m branching out from Hot (even though that’s my all-time favorite SNZ album) to touch on some of their great tracks from other albums.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Zippers aren’t truly retro-swing, so not all of their tracks fit well into the Salsatic Vibrato mold.  But the two here—“Baby Wants a Diamond Ring,” off Bedlam Ballroom, and “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill,” off Perennial Favorites—rock pretty hard.

But one of the best things about this mix is the 1-2-3 punch that kicks it off.  Every once in a while you just hit on a magic combination of tracks that feels so natural that, if you hear one track in some other context, you automatically hear the opening strains of the next track in your head as soon as it’s over.  This set is one of those.  It leads off with “Mambo Swing” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which also provides the volume title.  Then it slams into “Livin’ la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I do not like Ricky Martin.  Neither do I like Boys II Men or One Direction or New Kids on the Block or any other such crap.  But this one song is just awesome.  Oh, sure, I got sick of it when it was popular, like everyone else in the known universe.  But, once it stopped being everywhere you turned around, and I heard it again in isolation, I started to appreciate it: the funky bassline, the trumpets, the latin flair, the lyrics which were surprisingly non-trite.  Coming off “Mambo Swing,” which is easily the most salsa-inflected thing BBVD has done, it fits beautifully.  And then it rollicks along into “Sly,” by the Cat Empire.  Cat Empire is an Australian band, but this album was recorded in Havana, and it shows.  I’d never heard of them before Damian played them for me on WRNR, but “Sly” just blew me away.  The album is decent enough4 but that one song really kicks it.  These three tracks right in a row really put the “salsa” in “Salsatic Vibrato.”

Toward the middle of the volume, there’s another pairing I’m rather fond of.  “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk  Again)” (our track from Jumpin’ Jive this time out) is really too slow for this mix, but the joy I got from snuggling it up to “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” is just too sweet to pass up.5

The ska this time around is more spread out.  There are two tracks from Reel Big Fish: their excellent radio hit “Sell Out” and their inspired remake of “Take on Me.”6  Another track from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and another from Save Ferris keep the ska vibe going throughout.

You can also see that I picked up the soundtrack for Swing.  There are four movies that I know of which are given credit for helping out the retro-swing movement: Swing Kids and Bright Young Things we mentioned last time, and they’re at either end of a ten-year-span (1993 to 2003).  Then there’s Swingers, which came out in 1996; it didn’t really have much to do with swing music per se, but it featured Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, so it gets some credit.  But the best of the batch is Swing, which came along in 1999.  When I say “best” I don’t necessarily mean cinematically best, but best in terms of highlighting the music.  It’s a British flick about a former criminal who gets out of jail and decides to go straight.  His biggest problem is not having many marketable skills.  But he can play the saxophone ...  It’s really not a blad flick, and the music is excellent, sung by Georgie Fame and Lisa Stansfield (the latter of whom also stars in the movie).  The track I pulled here is a remake of the 1946 Louis Jordan tune that gave us the (admittedly useless) phrase “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.”  It’s a silly song, but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s got a great sax break in it.

Salsatic Vibrato II
    [King of the Monkeys]

        “Mambo Swing” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “Livin' la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin, off Livin' la Vida Loca [CD Single7]
        “Sly” by The Cat Empire, off Two Shoes
        “Äppelknyckarjazz” by Movits!, off Äppelknyckarjazz
        “Baby Wants a Diamond Ring” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Bedlam Ballroom
        “Sell Out” by Reel Big Fish, off Turn the Radio Off
        “What's the Use of Getting Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)” by Joe Jackson, off Jumpin' Jive
        “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “The Rascal King” by Mighty Mighty Bosstones, off Let's Face It
        “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of ...)” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “The World Is New” by Save Ferris, off It Means Everything
        “Fel del av gården” by Movits!, off Äppelknyckarjazz
        “Mr. Pinstripe Suit” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “Zoot Suit Riot” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Zoot Suit Riot [Compilation]
        “Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens” by Lisa Stansfield, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Perennial Favorites
        “Swing Out” by Swingerhead, off She Could Be a Spy
        “Hey Pachuco!” by Royal Crown Revue, off Mugzy's Move
        “Take on Me” by Reel Big Fish, off BASEketball [Soundtrack]
Total:  19 tracks,  66:17

Two other things I’ll mention before I close.

First of all, note that I’ve included cover images (both front and back) for this volume.  I often have a vague concept for a cover image when I work on a mix: there’s a recurring element which will be on every volume (or perhaps it will be the background of each one), and then there’s the volume-specific imagery, which is tied to the volume title.  Usually these are just mental pictures that will never exist in the real world.  But then, every now and again, I actually sit down with the Gimp and go scouring the Internet looking for clip art and photos to cobble together.  As it happens, I’ve done all of the first four volumes of Salsatic Vibrato in order to make physical CDs for a friend of mine.  And I figured, why not share them with you too?8  (The fact that the monkey I chose for the “King of the Monkeys” is King Louie from The Jungle Book is a bit of an inside joke.  Louie was voiced by Louis Prima, who penned many of the great swing songs, including “Jump, Jive an’ Wail”—seen on our last volume—and “Sing Sing Sing,” which we’ll see next time.9)

Lastly, a brief digression on the concept of “hardening.”  I start making a mix by adding song titles to a text file.  On every line, the first 3 columns are reserved for characters that help me keep track of the status.  One of those columns is for the position of the track: that is, is it in the perfect order within the mix, or does it need adjustment?  Songs initially start out with a blank in this column, meaning I haven’t yet added them to the physical playlist—they’re just a notional idea at that point.  Once I do add them, the blank is upgraded to an X, which means this track is just sitting at this position because that’s the order I happened to add it in; it doesn’t really belong in this position.  Then I start pondering positioning, but strictly from a mental perspective.  That is, I think about the tempo of the songs, or separating songs from the same artists, or any other reasons I can think of why a song should go here or there, but I’m not listening to the actual tracks yet.  Any tracks moved because of a guess at this point get their X upgraded to a ?.  Now I start listening to the tracks in my guesswork order.  If the position works pretty well, I upgrade the ? to a ~.  If the position is perfect, I change that to a >.  Once every track is marked with a >, the volume is set.

Of course, sometimes a position sounds only okay at first, but the more I listen to it the more natural it sounds.  I call this process “hardening.”10  Gradually, over time, the list, which started out as soft clay, hardens into a permanent set.  So far, the only mix volumes I’ve shared were “fully hardened,” so to speak.  But many of my mixes and volumes are still open for modification.  Which means that you may come back one day to find that the mix has changed.  In general, this is a good thing: it means I’m always open to new ideas, and I’m not afraid to say I made a mistake and something could be better if we tried it a different way.

This volume is the first which still has a little wiggle room in the chosen tracks: specifically, it’s the last three.  They’re a fairly recent addition, and I’m still not sure they fully work.  The story is that the set was a little short (only 57 minutes), and I felt it needed extending.  I had the Reel Big Fish “Take on Me” that I knew I wanted to add, but just tossing it in at the end didn’t flow well.  I needed more.

I’d also recently acquired the soundtrack to The Mask, which includes some fine tunes, including “Hey Pachuco!” by Royal Crown Revue.  Many retro-swing fans love RCR, but I’m more lukewarm on them.  Still, there’s no denying that “Hey Pachuco!” is a great track and I’d already decided to add it onto a future volume.  (Eventually I decided to use the version from their album Mugzy’s Move, which has a stronger opening than the soundtrack version in my opinion.)  In some fit of experimentation, I determined that “Take on Me” flowed pretty damn well after “Hey Pachuco!” and I considered making this the opening of a new group, possibly for Salsatic Vibrato III.  Certainly “Hey Pachuco!” is a strong enough opener to start a group, if not a whole volume.  But the problem is that “Take on Me” is a pretty good closer, so I didn’t really want to put anything on after it.  So I decided to make them their own little grouplet, and I certainly had room at the end of this volume.

So now all I needed was a transition between “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill” and “Hey Pachuco!”.  While trying to find some info on another retro-swing band I’d heard on Pandora,11 I ran across the webpage of a pretty hardcore retro-swing fan.  A lot of the bands he talks about I’d heard of, of course, but there were new acts as well, so I scrambled to see which ones I liked.  One that I discovered from this page is the moderately obscure Swingerhead.12  I picked up a copy of She Could Be a Spy and it’s not bad.  Not great, perhaps, but not bad.  “Swing Out” is, at 2½ minutes, a bit long to be a proper bridge, but it works.  Perhaps eventually it’ll grow on me enough that I’ll call it hardened.  But, for now, it’s still at the ~ stage in the positioning column.

Next time I think we’ll take a more nostalgic turn.


1 Still am, I suppose.

2 I wish this style had a name, because we’ll hear from it again when we get to Imelda May and Devil Doll.

3 See, I told you last time that I’d redress that slight.

4 We’ll see a couple of other tracks off it on some other mixes here and there.

5 We’ll see a longer ode to drinking when we get to Salsatic Vibrato IV.

6 Which makes it the second ska remake of an 80’s alternative staple.

7 I cannot in good conscience link you to a full Ricky Martin album.  Your brain might suffer irreparable damage.

8 I’ve also gone back and added the cover images to Salsatic Vibrato I.

9 In fact, Prima’s song from The Jungle Book, “I Wanna Be Like You,” will show up on volume IV, sung by our old friends Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

10 Don’t ask me why.  That’s just the word that sprang to mind when I was pondering this process.

11 We’ll hear that track when we get to Salsatic Vibrato IV.

12 Remember that “moderately obscure” means the barest of articles at AllMusic and/or Wikipedia.  If there were no articles in either place, I’d call that “really obscure.”

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