Swing, Kids!

A Revival Tries To Make History of Its Own

This isn't wrong, but it's only half the story of a decade lived under war clouds and fallout. There are other '40s out there: both James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, for instance, refuse to respect the received period mythology. Despite the occasional nod his way (Brian Setzer's "Hollywood Nocturnes" namechecks an Ellroy collection for atmosphere), none of the neo-swingers grapples with Ellroy's vision of the era as one of feral capitalist expansion underwritten by savage, and tacitly licensed, state violence against inconvenient minority populations. Nor do they hear Mosley's postwar L.A. speaking from the ground up in the voices of all those "spades" their beloved Philip Marlowe sneers at throughout Farewell, My Lovely.

"Back in the '40s, swing was punk rock," Big Bad Voodoo Daddy leader Scotty Morris has said, and Vale calls neo-swing "cultural rebellion in its most subversive form." But neo-swingers idealize sharpness, looking their best--an achiever's manifesto. If refusal was the definitive punk gesture, neo-swing's is acceptance. Mix and match and call it a lifestyle: that's what neo-swing, like consumer culture, sells these days. It's a music of situations and moments, too shallowly rooted for the total way of being it advocates. A comparison with Joe Jackson, the movement's unacknowledged godfather, is instructive. His singing is execrable, of course--who knew Louis Jordan was, deep down, an adenoidal Englishman?--but Jackson's 1981 Jumpin' Jive was content to be a one-off that faithfully recreated the music's tone and timbre. The first punk to unearth swing, Jackson crafted an impressive replica, then moved on. His more fervent descendants sing better and speed everything up--neo-swing's "Funky Drummer" is Prima's "Sing Sing Sing," with its big beats and ode to the joys of making music. The result is better pop than Jackson's: loud, catchy, a manic assortment of eras and styles.

But it's still the patchiest of patchworks, especially to anyone outside the subculture. Your generic neo-swing album starts fast, with loud drums to lead off; then one or two Prima/Jordan tunes; a midtempo opportunity for the singer to croon (occasionally a ballad); instrumental workouts where the horn players strut their stuff, almost always involving "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"; a raft of jump blues, usually about the scene, dancing, and the band itself; and a pair of art-cred forays into calypso, mambo, or r&b. Except for a few zoot-suit references, neither history nor the contemporary world make sustained appearances. This eclecticism-for-its-own-sake quickly cements into formula. Compilations like the recent Swing This, Baby! (Slimstyle) and Hipsters, Zoots & Wingtips: The '90s Swingers (Hip-O) offer little true variety as they swing from one band to the next, the sameness of approach growing steadily more oppressive.

Similar problems arise, as you might expect, on single-artist albums. The raffish Cherry Poppin' Daddies boast Steve Perry, neo-swing's savviest singer, his sardonic croon nicely underplaying a live-action Tex Avery persona--complete with wolf-whistling horns and smarmy/ironic lyrics about his snake "swervin' down your hall." (Avery, the renegade '40s illustrator whose lustfully popping eyes, bulging hearts, and lolling tongues struck his bosses as a mite too phallic, is as inescapable a neo-swing icon as Louis Prima: Jim Carrey's big dance number with Cameron Diaz in his Avery homage The Mask featured Royal Crown Revue, and the back of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy depicts one of Avery's wolves in full leer.) Like all the swinger singers, Perry's a historian by necessity, with a personal fondness for ska and Billy Eckstine, and he's got an eye for a droll story: "Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line" derives from an old article about a train conductor who married 16 different women. Still, all the cartoonish tomcatting and strutting wear out their welcome.

Strangely, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy aren't Avery-esque on record; their songs tend toward evanescent, good-natured melodiousness--fun bubbles. A typical problem: the Crescent City Maulers, whose Screamin' (Slimstyle) does get off some good randy lines, are also too polite for their moniker. Both the wry Blue Plate Special and the versatile, listener-friendly Indigo Swing make lightness count for more. A Night Out With Blue Plate Special (Slimstyle) skitters into weird, unpredictable corners; my favorite explores the suffering of Paul Drake, Perry Mason's tireless assistant. Indigo Swing's All Aboard! (Time Bomb), meanwhile, pulls off an uncanny simulation of a small combo, circa 1948: Johnny Boyd has the constrained, bell-like yearning of postwar America down perfectly. Still, when they rewrite Wynonie Harris's "Grandma Plays the Numbers" as "Baron Plays the Horses," the shift in context hurts: the black urban commonplace packs more ritual force than some white guys bopping over to the track.

Perhaps good faith isn't the answer. Having hit on oldies as a respite from punk almost 20 years ago, veteran faker Brian Setzer now poses so expertly that it's become a second skin. The Dirty Boogie (Interscope), his hybrid of punchy big-band (13 horns!) and rockabilly guitar, brews up well, and he covers both Louis Prima ("Jump Jive An' Wail," neo-swing's best Prima cover) and his Stray Cats past without embarrassment. Live, Setzer's utterly shameless, deploying an army of tired gestures (arm thrusts, leg kicks, goofy routines by the band) in the blithe, not unreasonable confidence that sheer panache can put them over. Swinging everything from the Clash to the Beatles, he's the missing link between Prima and postpunk.

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