Sunday, May 3, 2015

Salsatic Vibrato III

"South of Hell's Borders"

[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.]

And now we come to my favorite volume of Salsatic Vibrato, and in fact one my favorite volumes of all my mixes.  It’s just such a fantastic collection of tracks which are all pitch-perfect for this mix.  And we start it all off with “Sing, Sing, Sing.”

“Sing, Sing, Sing” has been called the “swing anthem,” and for good reason.  It has everything that epitomizes the genre, and it’s insanely popular.  It’s been in two of the four movies we talked about as being at least partially responsible for the popularity of retro-swing,1 and dozens of others.  There are countless versions of it, and pretty much every retro-swing band has at least one song that sounds just like it.  Its reputation is well-deserved.

Now, typically, I prefer retro-swing remakes over originals when it comes to classic swing tunes, so when I decided to include “Sing, Sing, Sing,” I listened to a lot of versions of it.  But the thing is, nothing beats the Benny Goodman version.  Now, it’s not the original version, despite the fact it’s the one most people think of as the original.  But the original is actually a Louis Prima song, with words.  Really stupid words, but words.  Prima, in fact, is a bit of a swing godfather: he did the original “Jump Jive an’ Wail” from Salsatic Vibrato I, and of course his famous song from The Jungle Book, which we’ll see next volume.  But while Louis Prima is amazing at writing swing songs, he’s not really that great at performing them, which is why Benny Goodman smoked him with his own song not a year and a half after Prima originally released it.  Goodman’s clarinet playing is part of the reason, for sure, but let’s not kid ourselves: it’s Gene Krupa’s fantastic work on the toms that makes the song.  Distinctive, electrifying, driving ... it gets under your skin and doesn’t let go.

For the rest of the set, there’s plenty of old friends come back for more.  Cherry Poppin’ Daddies with another great tune off Zoot Suit Riot,2 Lou Bega with another track off Little Bit of Mambo, and Movits! with another one off Appelknyckarjazz.  For Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, we’re branching out; they don’t really have any other full albums as good as Americana Deluxe, but there are plenty of great individual tracks, such as the one we use here.  We have a similar situation with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, straying from The Dirty Boogie to what is certainly their best song not off that album and one of their best tracks all around.3  Contrariwise, for the Squirrel Nut Zippers we go back to their best—Hotfor their biggest hit: “Hell.”  I’d avoided using it on the first two volumes because it seemed like too obvious a choice, but it really is just a great tune and doesn’t deserve to be overlooked just for the crime of being popular.

Plus we have plenty of new friends.  One of my favorite discoveries in the retro-swing genre is the Atomic Fireballs.  John Bunkley’s voice is just so rich and gravelly.  Running a close second is Lee Press-On and the Nails.  LPN can be so campy and kitschy that it starts to cross a line, but they can also be brilliant.  And then there’s Asylum Street Spankers, which is where we really start to deviate from the swing revival umbrella.  Some of their songs are retro-swing, true, but others are more reminiscent of Squirrel Nut Zippers, still others are more country-fied,4 some are just raunchy fun,5 and some are nearly impossible to categorize.  The track here, “Digga Digga Doo,” is a remake of a song from a Broadway show from the 20’s.  BBVD also has a version, but the ASS version is better.6  We’ll hear from all three of these folks in future volumes of Salsatic Vibrato.7

Another out-of-the-blue discovery was Eight to the Bar, one of those bands who is mostly known in their local scene8 (which is the greater Boston area).  I first heard them on Pandora,9 and was intrigued.  Their style covers a fair amount of ground, from swing to that Motown-grounded 50’s sound that I tried to define last time.10  After listening to a hell of a lot of their songs, it turns out that there’s only a few that I actually like, but I like those quite a lot.  We’ll hear more from them as well.

Also introduced to me via Pandora are Imelda May and Caro Emerald.  Imelda May actually concentrates on that hardcore Motown/50’s rock sound,11 but she has a few really brassy songs that fit perfectly here.  Caro Emerald, on the other hand, is one of Europe’s new-ish electro-swing acts,12 combining swing, loungy jazz, and electro to forge something truly inspiring.  Her album Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor is highly recommended.

Of course, the masters of electro-swing (as far as I’m concerned) are from the birthplace of swing mash-ups, Sweden, the same country that brought us Movits!.  For electro-swing, it’s Koop.  When I first discovered their seminal work Koop Islands, I was totally blown away.  If you go backwards from there in their discography, they get more electro and less swing, but Islands is the perfect balance in my view.13  The selection I chose here has, atypically, vocals from two of Koop’s prolific stable of singers: Earl Zinger and Yukimi Nagano.  It’s a great song, which gives us our volume title as well as a magnificent clarinet solo.

But neither Koop nor Movits! can claim the title of Sweden’s most bizarre swing mash-up: that honor has to go to Diablo Swing Orchestra.  Remember the first time someone tried to explain to you about how Dread Zeppelin was a reggae band doing covers of Led Zeppelin songs with an Elvis impersonator for a singer?  This is going to be worse.  DSO is a swing-inflected metal band with an opera singer and a male vocalist who sings through a voice-distortion unit.  Now, swing and metal are already bizarre enough of a mash-up, but throwing the opera and the VDU into it means that most of the songs from this Swedish outfit just don’t work.14  But, when they do ... it’s glorious.  Completely indescribable.  Their track here, “A Tap Dancer’s Dilemma,” which is our centerpiece, is their very best.15

The ska this time around is brought to us primarily by old-school greats Madness, and another new discovery, the lesser-known Mad Caddies.  The Caddies are from Solvang, just up the coast from me, and concentrate on power-ska, but also have eclectic tendencies and do pleny of branching out.  There’s just a taste of their brilliance here in the bridge track to DSO, but we’ll hear more from them in other volumes and mixes.

The touch of salsa in this volume comes via Kid Creole in the Coconuts, who were contemporaries of Miami Sound Machine and had a similar style of dancy, latin pop: sort of disco-salsa, you might say.  I never cared for Kid Creole at the time, but in later years when I had grown to have a greater appreciation for the big band personalities who inspired them,16 I thought I’d give them another try.  Most of the music I found hadn’t grown on me.  But I picked a few tracks that were pretty good,17 and at least one that was great, which I included here.

Salsatic Vibrato III
    [South of Hell's Borders]

        “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman [Single]18
        “Hell” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Hot
        “Man with the Hex” by The Atomic Fireballs, off Torch This Place
        “I'm Trumpin'” by Eight to the Bar, off Behind the Eight Ball
        “That Man” by Caro Emerald, off Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor
        “Why Me?” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Rattle Them Bones
        “Bai Mir Bist du Schøn” by Lee Press-On and the Nails, off El Bando en Fuego!
        “Digga Digga Doo” by Asylum Street Spankers, off Mercurial
        “The Dirge” by Mad Caddies, off Keep It Going
        “A Tap Dancer's Dilemma” by Diablo Swing Orchestra, off Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious
        “Big Bad Handsome Man” by Imelda May, off Love Tattoo
        “House of Fun” by Madness, off Complete Madness [Compilation]
        “The Glamorous Life (Club Edit)” by Sheila E., off The Glamorous Life
        “The Most Expensive Girl in the World” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “The Lifeboat Party” by Kid Creole and the Coconuts [Single]
        “Lilly” by Pink Martini, off Hang on Little Tomato
        “Forces ... Darling” by Koop, off Koop Islands
        “One More Night with You” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off Wolfgang's Big Night Out
        “Ta på dig dansskorna” by Movits!, off Äppelknyckarjazz
        “Mister White Keys” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Zoot Suit Riot [Compilation]
        “This Business of Love” by Domino, off The Mask [Soundtrack]
Total:  21 tracks,  77:26

The tracks that fill out this set are anything but filler.  First off is Sheila E.‘s über-classic “The Glamorous Life.”  This song has it all: intelligent lyrics by Prince, salsa touches provided by Sheila E.‘s amazing percussion, and brass courtesy of one of those sax solos you only get from the 80’s ... they just don’t make ’em like that any more, more’s the pity.19

Pink Martini is another band in the same vein as Diablo Swing Orchestra or Kid Creole and the Coconuts for me: most of their stuff I don’t care for, but when they put out a winner, it really cooks.  Their music is sort of a cross between loungy jazz and world.20  Generally, I like my world in the form of electro-world (what some call to “ethnic electronica”), like Transglobal Underground or Thievery Corporation.  So the majority of Pink Martini’s non-English work doesn’t particularly excite me.  And even the English tunes are more often suited for a different mix,21 but “Lilly” is an unusually upbeat track for them and fits perfectly here.

Finally, to close out this great set, I go back to the soundtrack for The Mask, the same place I first heard “Hey Pachuco!”.22  This time out it’s the almost loungy “Business of Love” by West Coast rapper Domino.  It’s a sly, brassy, fun tune and a great way to end the set.

Next time around, I think we’ll go lounging around.23


1 Specifically, Swing Kids and Bright Young Things.

2 For some reason, I’ve always felt that “Mr. White Keys” was the spiritual cousin of SNZ’s “Bad Businessman,” which we saw on our first volume.

3 It is, in fact, off Wolfgang’s Big Night Out, in which every song reuses the tune of a piece of classical music.  See if you can guess which one “One More Night with You” is based on.

4 Some too much so.  There’s a couple of ASS tracks that I have to regularly skip lest they trigger my country music gag reflex.

5 As you might have guessed from their initials.

6 Not to mention includes a hot-jazz-jump-swing version of some very familiar movie music in the breakdown.  See if you can identify it.

7 And on other mixes as well.

8 Remember my definition of an obscure band: must have only skeletal entries or no entries at all on both AllMusic and Wikipedia.  Eight to the Bar definitely qualifies by that definition.

9 I don’t typically listen to Pandora—that is, not just sit and listen to it for entertainment—but as a music discovery service it’s tough to beat.

10 In reference to Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, about half of whose music falls into that category.

11 Man, I wish that style had a name.  Besides CPD and EttB and Imelda May, we still have Devil Doll to get to, so I’ll have to dance around my vague description all over again next volume.

12 Ms. Emerald is from the Netherlands.

13 Not that I want to discourage you from checking out their first two albums as well.  Both are very good, if not quite so good as Islands.

14 Well, maybe they’d work for me if I was a bigger fan of speed metal.  But I only dabble, at most.

15 Although they’ll crop up again on Salsatic Vibrato IV with one almost as good.

16 In particular, Cab Calloway.

17 This is one of the joys of buying music in the digital age.  In the old days, I would have never sprung for a full album of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, not even one of their greatest hits compilations.  But now that I can purchase individual tracks that I’ve pre-sampled, I can get just the stuff I like.

18 There’s like a million versions of this song out there, most of them free.  The one I linked you to is not bad.  Actualy, the one I personally use is a five-minute one I found on YouTube.  You just have to convert it to MP3 and trim the dead air off the end.  But use any version you like.  Except I think the 8-minute versions—and even longer ones—make the volume too long.  Certainly it won’t fit on a CD any more if you go with one of those.

19 You want the “Club Edit” version of this track.  Like the 8-minute version of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” 9 minutes of “The Glamorous Life” falls under the rubric of “Too Much of a Good Thing.”

20 Singer China Forbes sings in 15 different languages, according to Wikipedia.

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

22 Which you may remember from Salsatic Vibrato II, although there I used the slightly different version off Royal Crown Revue’s own album.

23 Yes, I know I said that last time too.  But next time, for reals.

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