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(Warner Bros. 44110 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/27/2006)
With the plethora of music being released these days, it's not easy for a CD to stand out. The adjectives used by self-styled critics like myself can help to describe how a recording may or may not deserve special attention: innovative, energetic, iconoclastic, virtuosic, eclectic, evocative. Recordings that particularly draw me are ones that can be described as clever -- innovative in a perhaps lighthearted manner. And I think that the word well describes the recording we have at hand this week. It's the sophomore release by the Ditty Bops, called Moon Over the Freeway. The Los Angeles area group plays a curious blend of cabaret, ragtime, bits of Western Swing, folk and various other what sounds like fragments of musical archeology, and come up with a very appealing and fun blend of mostly acoustic sounds with witty lyrics.
The Ditty Bops are the duo of Abby DeWald and Amanda Barrett. Both are California natives but they first met in New York. Ms. Barrett grew up in Southern California and learned to play the mountain dulcimer at age 6. But as a teen, she moved to Europe and worked as a fashion model, which she continued to do after relocating to New York in her early 20s. Ms. DeWald grew up in Northern California in a home dominated by classical music. She took piano lessons, but was eventually drawn to ragtime and early blues. After both separately moved to Los Angeles, the two ended up together in a band that played covers of songs from the 1920s in period costumes.
After Barrett and DeWald decided to form the Ditty Bops, they brought that theatricality to their act, including such things as puppet shows, displays of art and plenty of costumes and wigs, to match their music with its nostalgic and often theatrical sound.
Oddly enough, this very distinctive and out-of-the-mainstream duo ended up being signed to a major record label, in a day when media conglomerates seem only to be signing cookie-cutter commercial pop bands. The Ditty Bops worked once again with producer Mitchell Froom, known for his wide range of interesting artists from Los Lobos to Elvis Costello to Susanne Vega. Froom is known at times for his sonic innovation, and he brings some of that to this CD through the use of sound effects and the like.
The Ditty Bops on this CD are somewhat expanded into a fairly regular band with keyboard man Greg Rudledge, bassist Ian Walker, violinist and steel guitar player John Lambdin, and drummer Pete Thomas. Froom himself plays some keyboards here and there.
But it's the duo of DeWald and Barrett who are the center of the Ditty Bops, and they write all but one tune on the album. As in the days of yore, the songs are all succinct. There are thirteen tracks but the CD times in at only 37 and a half minutes. But that brevity also makes the songs pithy, making their point quickly and never overstaying their welcome, which novelty songs can often do.
The CD opens with its title piece, Moon Over the Freeway, a lively traveling song carrying the intriguing blend of influences that the Ditty Bops weave into their music, bits of Western Swing, some hints of theatrical cabaret, and moments that remind one of Les Paul and Mary Ford. <<>>
The Ditty Bops' cleverness often extends to their lyrics, in which the main character has a attitude. In fact, they include a song called Angel with an Attitude that sums up their wit. <<>>
Even more theatrical in sound is Aluminum Can, an amusingly quirky song that seems to have about three acts. <<>>
One of my favorite tracks is Fish to Fry, an amusing and swingy song what basically tells someone to get lost. <<>>
Another track that gets about three or four scenes in just over two-and-a-half minutes is called In the Meantime. <<>>
Also showing a little Western Swing influence is a song ironically called Waking Up in the City. It's a fun contrast between the decidedly urban lyrics and musical setting that evokes rural Texas honky-tonks in the 1940s. <<>>
The Ditty Bops include one cover song, the Everly Brothers classic Bye Bye Love, which they play fairly straight, but with a lot of charm. <<>>
The Ditty Bops duo are heard by themselves on the song It's a Shame. Though it's an interesting song, without the swinging backing band, the track lacks some of the charm of the others. <<>>
The CD ends with a great song designed to deflate the ego of the kind of person that probably all of us know. Your Head's Too Big, brings together the band's cleverness in both music and lyrics. <<>>
The Ditty Bops' approach of doing things their own way extends to their tour. Committed environmentalists, DeWald and Barrett send their equipment along in a biodiesel powered vehicle, and they themselves have been traveling in a nationwide tour by bicycle, enduring the travails that brings. Their blog reported that Ms. DeWald was overcome by heat exhaustion as they bicycled in Kansas in hundred-degree temperatures this summer. But they have been winning audiences all along the way, and their new CD Moon Over the Freeway, should do the same nationally, among those who get a chance to hear this wonderfully clever, charming recording that does some great musical metaphor mixing, both musically and lyrically. They evoke music of old from the Andrews Sisters to Les Paul and Mary Ford to Bob Wills to Django Reinhardt to the Everly Brothers, and have a lot of infectious fun doing so.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." Producer Mitchell Froom is known for his quirky often "lo-fi" sonic approach, but this CD is treated appropriately, with the sound evoking the mood of old-time recordings without the poor quality. The use of sound effects is also quite effective. The dynamic range, the difference between loud and soft, is mediocre.
There is a lot of retro music about these days, from traditional style folk to music evoking the psychedelic 1960s to 1970s funk. But the Ditty Bops go back much further for their influences, and rather than just try to recreate old sounds, they have come up with a very original and smart blend that just sounds old-fashioned on the surface. It's an album that once you've heard it, it's hard to put away.
(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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