"Most of what I do was popular at one time," the great Leon Redbone once said in reply to a question about his 1920s repertoire of songs.
I thought about Leon as I listened to the latest album from his fellow Victrola-era travelers the Ditty Bops. Since their debut in 2004, duo Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald have been tapping into American sounds that once rode high on the hit parade and crafting their own liltingly original music from those bygone styles. Cabaret, vaudeville, Django-esque gypsy jazz, folk, swing, ragtime, slack-keyed Hawaiian--they're all trotted out lovingly on Summer Rains. And though the Ditty Bops may not pose any immediate chart threat to Coldplay or Rihanna, they have made one of the friendliest-sounding records I've heard this year.
Of course, that's coming from a guy who owns two ukuleles and still uses rabbit ears to tune his television.
As on their previous two albums, the retro girls find ways to transcend mere nostalgia. Take their sly lyrics. "Summer Rains" turns the apocalyptic lemons of Global Warming into bittersweet lemonade, with "an orchestra of ukuleles strumming" as "every land becomes an island paradise." "What Happened To The Radio" bemoans the corporate conformity of the airwaves--where "you can change the dial but it's all the same "--all while sounding like a single from thirty years ago. And in the psychedelic pop of "The Weeds Are Winning," they see us humans as evolutionary stragglers behind the heartier rats and weeds.
All in all, a long way from "fo-do-oh-dee-oh-do."
Reteamed with Mitchell Froom, the pair mix their winsome vocal harmonies with vintage archtops, mandolins, ukes, and an array of the producer's trademark clinks, clanks, and odd keyboard textures.
"Strange birds, strange birds are we," Barrett and DeWald sing on one song. Maybe, but charming and sweet-voiced birds. • Bill DeMain