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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1515

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The Puppini Sisters: The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo

by George Graham

(Verve 10416 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/13/2008)

There is a lot of retro music appearing these days. This is hardly a new phenomenon. But it seems that there is an increasing amount of new music that sounds old. People are reviving music from the 1980s on back, with a particularly large number of groups drawing on the styles of the 1960s. But this week we have a new recording by a group that goes back a further twenty years for its influence: The Puppini Sisters, whose new second full album is called The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo.

The Puppini Sisters are three unrelated English residents, who draw on the styles of the Andrews and Boswell Sisters from around the time of World War II. The group was founded by Marcella Puppini, who was born in Bologna, Italy, and started playing piano at age 5. After studying the classics, such as Greek and Latin literature, she planned to take a vacation in Paris, but somehow ended up in London, where she enrolled in Central St. Martin's School of Art, where she got her degree in fashion design, and began work in the fashion industry. But she remained drawn to her first love, music, and decided to pursue a degree there, studying at the Trinity College of Music, majoring in jazz performance and composition. She began to attract attention as a jazz singer, and also began performing on the so-called "alternative cabaret scene." After seeing a film called "Belleville Rendezvous" she was very much taken by the style of the 1940s female groups with their vocal harmonies, and as one with a fashion background, was particularly smitten by the fashions of the era. So she got together with a couple of musical friends from Trinity College and formed the Puppini Sisters to have some fun performing in those gay bars. But soon they were attracting a good deal of attention, and eventually got themselves an international record deal.

The other members of the Puppini Sisters are Stephanie O'Brien and Kate Mullins, both native Brits and both with serious musical backgrounds in classical music and jazz. So although the Puppini Sisters exude a kind of tongue-in-cheek, whimsical aura, especially in their appearance, they are not just three women who sing with the band, but talented composers and especially arrangers, who create some very clever covers of unlikely songs, as well as writing a good helping of worthwhile original music.

While all three of the singers are instrumentalists as well as vocalists, there is a regular band of three guys who provide the rhythm section, acoustic bassist Nick Pini, guitarist Martin Kolarides, and drummer Henry Tyler who also appear on their previous album released in the US in the spring of 2007. They are also joined by a string quartet on a few of the tracks.

Even in the less than a year since their debut album appeared, the Puppinis have matured musically, I think, with more original material. They become more eclectic, and put a little less emphasis on trying to channel the Andrews Sisters. The result is album that first of all, is a lot of fun, but also shows quite a bit of cleverness and musical savvy. And the tunes they pick to cover are a wonderfully varied bunch, from the Classics Four's chestnut Spooky, to pop hits by Beyonce Knowles and Donna Summer, to a song from a James Bond film.

The CD opens with their version of Spooky which the group completely transforms, sounding alternately like the soundtrack to a spy film and a quirky cabaret song. The result is outstanding. <<>>

They follow that with an other cover, the Bangles' hit Walk Like an Egyptian, but here they maintain more of the original version's style. It's appealing but not as striking as some of the other tracks.

The first of the originals is called Soho Nights, written by Ms. O'Brien. The tune has a kind of a rumba beat, while the lyrics seem somewhat autobiographical. <<>>

One of the most amusing of the original songs is I Can't Believe I'm Not a Millionaire. It's a slow, bluesy song by Marcella Puppini, which is a fun contrast to the subjects that the 1940s sister groups used to sing. <<>>

Could It Be Magic, is a song written by Barry Manilow, and made into a hit by disco queen Donna Summer. The Puppinis turn it into a kind of theatrical torch song. It's another example of the group's musical resourcefulness. <<>>

Ironically, the Puppinis are least impressive when they perform songs that date from the period they are emulating. The serve up Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing, and although they take some liberties with it, the result doesn't seem to work as well. <<>>

On the other hand, the group really has a great time doing the Beyonce Knowles song Crazy in Love, taking the tune through everything from hot jazz to what seems like French cabaret. <<>>

The CD ends with We Have All the Time in the World, originally written for a James Bond movie and sung by Louis Armstrong. The Puppini Sisters do it as a slow ballad backed by the string section, and again, the result is both interesting and entertaining.

The Puppini Sisters's new CD The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo -- which by the way is the name of Marcella Puppini's favorite color of red lipstick -- is a thoroughly enjoyable recording that draws on the sounds of the 1940s female vocal groups who sang with the big bands, and adds a generous helping of eclecticism. Their choice of songs to cover is pretty daring, but they pull them off adroitly, for the most part, and keep the spirit of good fun in their music, despite the often creative and unexpected arrangements by the three non-sisters. The result is both musically engaging and very likely to bring a smile, and as well as provide some music for dancing the jitterbug.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B+. Though most of the album was recorded in the famous Abbey Road Studios in London, it seems to me that there was a effort to use vintage microphones and other equipment. So the sound is often rather less distinct than good contemporary recordings. And it also seemed as if all three of the vocalists shared a single microphone. So there is no stereo spread on the voices. Dynamic range is about average for a contemporary recording, which is to say, not that great.

The Puppini Sisters on their second album The Rise and Fall Of Ruby Woo have shown themselves to be not merely one-trick-ponies, emulating the girl groups of the swing era, but a solidly creative and musically savvy band that happens to have a retro sound.

(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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