catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 19 :: 2006.10.20 — 2006.11.03


Authentic nostalgia

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” noted the always-wry Sam Phillips on an album called Fan Dance, and her words have the ring of truth to them. Look no further than the increasingly crowded field of American roots music; as more and more contemporary artists dip into the canon of vintage country, blues, and jazz, it’s becoming more and more difficult for traditionally-minded musicians to stand out from the crowd. American music may be the finest in the world, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a few new tricks.

The Ditty Bops may not show us any new tricks, exactly, but on Moon Over the Freeway they reintroduce us to plenty of old ones; the duo of Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald are reading the same playbook that everyone else is, but they seem to have flipped to some pages that most folks are skimming over. Their song “In the Meantime” begins with the sound of a door creaking open, the sounds of a big bass band slowly wafting in from the room next door; by the time the ragtime beat kicks in, the listener realizes that this isn’t a revival of old styles so much as a journey through a time machine. The Ditty Bops find their muse not in dirty country sounds or Norah Jones-style jazz lite, but in cabaret, swing, ragtime, and pre-war pop in the vein of the Andrews Sisters, with a few flourishes of bluegrass thrown in for additional flavor.

The mere fact that it’s so unlike anything else being made right now makes Moon Over the Freeway a fun listen, but what makes it a true thrill is the fact that the Bops pull it off so well. These sounds and styles may be things of the past, but the music lives very much in the present. It’s lively, swingin’ stuff, full of whimsy and romance. It’s playful and flirtatious, at times downright sexy, and the Bops have the sweet, schoolgirl vocal harmonies to make it convincing. One gets the feeling that they’re playing these songs not as some academic exercise or genre experiment, but because they genuinely love this music, and their enthusiasm is infectious and endearing.

What makes it all the more convincing and unique is that these songs are almost all originals. Not only that, but they’re very good originals, filled with wit and plenty of attitude. In fact, there’s a streak of smirk running through these songs that often seems at odds with the music, giving it an added edge; “Angel with an Attitude” doesn’t mince words in its indictment of religious hypocrisy, and “Fall Awake” finds the Bops declaring, “I don’t care about the rules/ we only answer to ourselves.” “Fish to Fry,” meanwhile, is a snarky send-off that basically amounts to one big middle finger—not exactly Andrews Sisters material.

Of course, the Ditty Bops will probably never shake the accusations that they’re essentially making novelty music, but they play their songs with such confidence and affection that it’s hard to think of them as anything but sincere. What’s more problematic is that, by the end of the record, many of the songs begin to sound the same, with too-similar moods and tones, and many listeners will find it a bit too cutesy and twee to begin with. For a hodgepodge of long-forgotten musical styles, though, it’s a pleasantly lively, engaging collection, and a trip into yesteryear that actually has the ring of authenticity.

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