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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1739

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Jitterbug Vipers: Phoebe's Dream
by George Graham

(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/28/2013)

In recent years there has been a revival of swing-era influenced music in various forms, running from a straight recreation of the style to some interesting mutant electronic and sampled-based sounds. Among the recent groups and performers are the Puppini Sisters, The Lost Fingers, Good Co., the Leftover Cuties, and Le Percolateur, to name just a few.

This week we have another interesting and fun band that specializes is a specific style from the era. They call themselves the Jitterbug Vipers, and their new second CD is called Phoebe's Dream.

The group's name sums up what they do. The music that influences them is from the Jitterbug era of danceable swing music, and "vipers" is a reference to a kind of sub-genre created by a bunch of musicians from that period who were confirmed marijuana users, and often sang about it using a kind of jive that disguised the meaning except to those who knew. The band's website claims that the term "viper"arose in reference to the sound of someone deeply inhaling a joint sounding like the hiss of a snake. And the Jitterbug Vipers write quite a few songs about the subject, perhaps now that it's legal in several states. They are a quartet from Austin, Texas, founded by a septuagenarian guitarist named Slim Richey who has performed or recorded with everyone from jazz great Herb Ellis to Ray Price and Ricky Skaggs. He appears with three women, including his wife of 25 years, who calls herself Francie Meaux Jeaux on bass, a Japanese-born drummer who was a graduate of the Berklee College of Music and played extensively with jazz big bands, Masumi Jones, and lead vocalist and principal songwriter Sarah Sharp. She also is half of the pop group Kaliyo, whose songs have ended up in TV commercials and shows. Ms. Sharp, most of whose songs are collaborations with other songwriters, created clever swingy tunes full of lyrical double entendres, and has a great voice for this kind of style. One of her songwriting collaborators, by the way, is Elizabeth McQueen of the venerable group Asleep at the Wheel. The Jitterbug Vipers call their music "swingadelic" and in their instrumentation and clever lyrical style, they remind me quite a bit of long-running group Dave's True Story. One reviewer wrote that Jitterbug Vipers are the embodiment of the slogan "Keep Austin Weird." But their music is fun, if you don't mind the constant references to chemically induced highs. The band's first release featured mainly jazz standards from that era, but this time, nine of the eleven songs are originals.

The band are all good players. Slim Richey is considered something of a guitar icon in Austin, and his playing is just right for the music, rather understated and his style has a fair amount of the Texas swing in it. The instrumentation remains simple and unaugmented throughout the album, with just the guitar, acoustic bass and a scaled back drum set, allowing the focus to be on Ms. Sharp's vocals and the lyrics.

Leading off is the title piece, Phoebe's Dream which gets right into the "viper," a/k/a drug influenced lyrics. It's also a great, tasteful example of the swing-era influence that is the band's specialty. <<>>

And if there were not enough, there's the following tune A Viper Just the Same. The bluesy song is perhaps a little bit out of the swing context, but the band also handles it very well. <<>>

The song that Ms. Sharp wrote with Elizabeth McQueen of Asleep at the Wheel is called Stuff It. The lyrics do have a different subject matter, but are clever and full of jive. <<>>

There are two songs on the album from the period that was the Jitterbug Vipers' inspiration. One of them is Undecided by swing-era jazz trumpeter Charlie Shavers. The song is a natural for this style of band, but they alter it with a creative arrangement which gives the old song a new twist. <<>>

Another clever original song by Ms. Sharp is called Dangerous, about a character who fits the description. <<>>

It's back to this album's central subject on That Was Just the Sauce Talking. Unlike most of the other songs on getting high on drugs and drinking, this one is a cautionary tale. <<>>

The other old song on the album is Billie's Blues by Billie Holiday. It's done at a slow, slinky tempo, and nicely shows that the band has different facets. <<>>

The CD contains one instrumental, a short tribute by Slim Richey called Django's Birthday. It's not really in the Django Reinhardt style, being on electric guitar, but it's nice way to end the album. <<>>

On their new second CD Phoebe's Dream, the Austin Texas based three-woman, one manm swing-revival quartet Jitterbug Vipers have made a fun recording of mostly clever original songs that rather authentically and tastefully conjures music from their favorite era. The original material is lyrically clever and principal songwriter Sarah Sharp's lead vocals are quite appealing. And unlike some other groups who try to emulate the music of the past, Ms. Sharp sings in her own mostly easy-going style without trying to sound like anyone else in particular. The band's accompaniment is understated yet spirited. But the constant lyrical theme of getting on chemical highs and be a bit tedious, and stands the risk of painting the band as being a one-trick pony

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. We gave the recording praise for not being too heavily compressed. The natural dynamics of the music are preserved a bit more than most current pop CDs. But the recording has a number of analog style artifacts, such as tape hiss and background noise from the guitar amplifier. And the lead vocals are not as clean as they could have been.

With the revival of swing era music by contemporary bands becoming more common, the Jitterbug Vipers sound is not as distinctive as it might have been, but it's nevertheless a fun, musically infectious record that has much to offer.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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