Hot Club of Cowtown – Wild Kingdom
Self Released – 27 September 2019

Taking their inspiration from the Hot Club of France and Western swing, the Austin-based trio, since 2011 their albums have been  focused on paying tribute to their musical influences, recording numbers by the likes of Wills, Reinhardt, Grapelli and Crosby, and, most recently, a swing reimagining of seven  classics by The Band.

However, for the first time in a decade, their latest sees Whit Smith, Jake Erwin and Elana James finally return to their own original music  with all numbers save for two golden oldies and one traditional penned by either guitarist Smith or fiddle player James. The album gets underway with two by the latter, first up being My Candy, a sweetly sung, fiddle solo showcase that uses various American confectionary brands, among them  Hershey, Toblerone, Tootsie  pops, Smarties and the spicy cinnamon Atomic Fire Ball, as a metaphor settling with her own tall and handsome Bit o Honey. By contrast, Last Call is a waltz-time number about a weary veteran musician finally being called home to God and the universal lover of his songs.

While her songs take care of the romance and relationship side of things, Smith’s are more inclined to the existential, such as Billy The Kid  in which, set to a gypsy violin and a jazzy bass groove, the famous outlaw looks back over his life as he’s gunned down, while the jaunty slap bass swing of Caveman addresses the idea of the endurance of art as it conjures the image of a prehistoric Picasso finding fame through his cave paintings whose work is still admired today.

James the switched back from art to heart with the punningly titled Near Mrs., a list of lovers song in the tradition of All My Exes Live In Texas on which she cheekily sings how “Buck Owens tried to kiss me, but then he kicked me out” before finally settling down with number twenty-six.
The first of the covers come with the three-part harmonies of 30s swing tune Three Little Words, written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmer and first recorded in August 1930 by The Rhythm Boys, including Bing Crosby, backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The other two non-originals offer an interesting contrast to one another,  a jaunty jazzy romp through Loch Lomond with musical interplay involving Grapelli-like fiddle, double bass and  a guitar solo from Smith that seems likely to stretch out into improvisation in the live set, and, closing the album, the 40s jazz standard How High The Moon here taking its cue from the Les Paul and Mary Ford recording with its extended instrumental section allowing all the instruments their turn in the spotlight.

Returning to the band’s material, Tall, Tall, Ship is a toe-tapping fiddle-led country chugger with a bluegrass streak immediately offset by the lazing blues with James using the image of a rodeo pick up rider as a metaphor for the white knight coming to the rescue in a relationship gone sour.

Smith sings lead on his two remaining contributions, the bluesy Brubeck swing Ways of Escape about getting back in touch with the things that matter and, taking the pace down, the walking rhythm of Easy Money about shrugging off a gold digger girlfriend that features Joe Kerr on piano.

The remaining cuts are both from James, High On The Mountain an itchy blues n bluegrass wherein she finds heading into the mountains to forget about her ex has just the opposite effect while, in distinct contrast to her other songs, Before The Time Of Men draws on manouche jazz and  some complex horsehair fiddle work that, reflecting the album’s title (a nod to the long-running US TV nature  documentary series) and artwork,  imagines  a white stallion running free before the coming of man’s domination.

Arriving a  little late to put a swing soundtrack into the summer perhaps, but there’s warmth and joy here whatever the season.

Their UK tour kicks off on November 5th at London’s Cecil Sharp House including dates at The Met, Bury on 16 Nov and more. Full tour schedule here: