Anne McCue is better known for standing in front of guitars and drums than clarinets and brass. Her previous albums reached back to the gutsy sound of 1970s rock vocalists, as well as contemporaries like Sam Phillips and Lucinda Williams; her latest reaches back several more decades, to the sounds of the 1930s. Thereâ€™s always been a bluesy edge to her singing, and here those notes consort with the roots of swing and gypsy jazz. McCue dials down the ferocity of her vocals to an era-appropriate slyness, picks terrific figures on her guitar, and perhaps most impressively of all, writes songs that bid to fill some blank pages in the great American songbook.
Drummer Dave Raven nails the eraâ€™s blood-pumping excitement with Krupa-styled tom-toms on the opening â€œDig Two Graves,â€ Deanie Richardsonâ€™s fiddle provides a superb foil for McCueâ€™s six string swing, and Jim Hokeâ€™s clarinet and horn chart fills in the period detail. The songâ€™s bouncy tempo camouflages lyrics of noirish revenge, with San Francisco fog cloaking fatalistic fortunes. McCue turns to folk-blues with the finger-picked renewal of â€œSpring Cleaning in the Wintertimeâ€ and the old-timey â€œCowgirl Blues.â€ She turns into a charming, coquettish chanteuse for â€œLong Tall Story,â€ and gets slinky, ala Peggy Lee, on the double bass and finger-snapping â€œSave a Life.â€
The fourteen tracks focus on popular songs, show tunes and folk melodies that became jazz standards in 1930s Paris. The selections include the evergreens “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Crazy Rhythm,” and “If I Had You” (accidentally attributed as Irving Berlin’s like-titled composition), as well as a driving take on Reinhardt and Grappelli’s “Minor Swing” and several lesser-known tunes. The group displays their virtuosity both individually and as a trio, breaking out for solos and effortlessly weaving back together into tight improvisations. Elana James and Whit Smith each sing charmingly, Smith with more of a period style, but they also step into the spotlight with their fiddle and guitar to voice instrumental versions of “Dark Eyes,” “I’m Confessin'” and “Sunshine of Your Smile.”
Though the Belleville Outfit makes their home in Austin, Texas, three of the members originally hail from South Carolina, and two more were drawn from school connections in New Orleans. Only violinist Phoebe Hunt is an Austin native (and a UT graduate to boot!), and the Southern roots help account for the original flavor in the band’s swing, particularly in Rob Teter’s pinched, Satchmo-style vocals. Along with the long-running Hot Club of Cowtown, this sextet has become one of Austin’s foremost proponents of gypsy jazz. The group hots things up with Reinhardt-influenced guitar runs and dramatic Grapelli-like violin flurries, but they also pick more ruminative mid-tempo blues, add keyboards (piano, B3 and Rhodes), vary their vocals from sly old-timey to fetching country harmonies, and make room for a few instrumental string jams.