Eloquence in Rhythm: The Solo Ventures of Hot Club of Cowtown’s Elana James
Summer Sunday Flashback Pt. Trey
Hot Club of Cowtown’s lead torch Elana James has also rolled out two sets of originals and covers across various zones, always on the self-express—the first appeared in 2007, when I wrote this for the Village Voice:
A DYLAN CO-CONSPIRATOR SWINGS OUT OF THE PAST
When East Village–conceived, Austin-based swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown broke up in 2004, co-founding fiddler-vocalist Elana Fremerman was soon called by Bob Dylan to be the point person in the mercurial Cap’n D’s near-nightly assault on his own hallowed repertoire. Emboldened by this experience, Elana has now changed her surname to James (more likely to be spelled right by promoters), scooped up Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith for her own tour, and released her self-titled solo debut. She still sings with a smile, Hot Club–style, but her sharp little teeth are more apparent on Elana James.
Hot Club’s albums consist mostly of covers, mostly to very good yet sometimes scattered effect, but James wrote six of these 13 tracks, and this set’s a story. The centerpiece is “All the World and I,” in which a chiming guitar briskly patrols the dreamy drones of bowed fiddle and bass as well as the held notes and images of James’s multitracked vocals. The tension of timing, even in dreams and memories, also winds through the hyper-real brightness of Percy Wenrich’s (non-Christmas) “Silver Bells,” a fiddling duet with Western swing great Johnny Gimble, and on into the urban twilight of Ellington and Strayhorn’s “I Don’t Mind”: “I don’t mind the ice and snow/The tears of brine that make love go . . . I’ll take a chance.” Out of the past, but to be continued!
And in 2015, after several more Hot Club epochs, it was continued, as noted in my Nashville Scene ballot comments for that year:
Elana James, Black Beauty—Hot Club of Cowtown’s fiddling chanteuse brings the back-and-forth of both principal instruments to this second solo set’s selection, sequence and sound of songs that sometimes veer from Hot Club-ready, steamy and starlit vintage visions, into contemporary covers and originals, often powered by serious playfulness (careful if ye be wishing for truly elfin charms). She wraps “The One Who Loves You More” and the bone(s?) of contention in her own dream, which is just passing through, floating into place, like a cape and/or a sheet. Who else could or would glide and ricochet directly from a cover of barely-double entendre chestnut “Telephone Man” to the musical setting for “Hey Beautiful: Last Letter From Iraq (US Army Staff Sgt. Juan Campos),” in which the soldier deftly spices understatement into intimate reserve, where lines and spaces can be lit just so. There’s also a seamless, detailed version of Hunter-Garcia‘s oops-way-of-nature “Ripple,” for instance, along with an occasional reminder of Hot Club’s tendency to random selection, though pretty sure they wouldn’t majority-vote for “Hobo’s Lullaby.” Her self-titled debut might be the solo EJ to start with; neither is to be missed.