Review: Hot Club of Cowtown – What Makes Bob Holler (Proper American)
Hot Club of Cowtown’s affinity for Bob Wills has always been a fundamental element of their sound, but the ad hoc covers of their early years have taken fifteen years to ripen into a full-fledged tribute. The trio long ago settled into their winning combination Texas swing and gypsy jazz, but here they lean heavily on the former, with Elena James sawing her fiddle more sweet than hot, and Whit Smith swinging his guitar more polite than fiery. Both James and Smith sing in the style of ‘40s band singers, but without the steel guitar, drums or horns that helped define the Texas Playboys. The results haven’t the volume of a big band, but the resulting space is deftly used to showcase the underpinnings of Western swing – rhythm, vocal shading, instrumental phrasing and repertoire. All three players take turns in the spotlight; the long, drawn notes of James’ solo on “Faded Love” are heartbreakingly beautiful, Smith’s tremolo picking on “Maiden’s Prayer” suggests a mandolin, and Jake Erwin’s slap bass solos show off both his melodic and percussive abilities. Recorded live in the studio, the collection plays as if it were the group’s nightly set list, tight to the point that the players can relax and really enjoy the feeling of swing.