Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Stolen Sweets - Sleepytime in Chinatown


To conclude jazz week, I am happy to present The Stolen Sweets. You will notice that the album cover is designed to look like a matchbook cover. A beautiful woman is in a swanky nightclub. Her gloved hand holds a cigarette in a long holder. Several young men rush up to her and offer her a light. One lights it, and she says, “Thank you, boys” in a voice that makes your heart melt. The smoke rises from her hand like a thing alive, an effect that only works on black and white film.

The music of The Stolen Sweets evokes the world depicted in the films of the late 30s and early 40s. Romance is innocent and pure. Jealousy can drive a man to terrible acts. And everything is idealized. This doesn’t happen in the movies nowadays, and putting it over musically is a challenge. Audiences are jaded, and expect characters to have flaws. The only way to put this over is to evoke a past era so completely that your listeners are willing to suspend disbelief, and take the ride with you. The Stolen Sweets succeed.

The Sweets have two guitar players and a stand-up bass player. There are two male and three female singers. Guest musicians on various tracks add drums, clarinet, a string quartet, cornet, and even Hawaiian steel guitar. The female singers get most of the work; they work as a trio, singing close harmony on lead or behind one of the men; sometimes one of the women sings lead while the other two sing background. This variety of voices and combinations allows The Sweets to capture a variety of moods. I imagine that they have discussions all the time about which vocal combination would best serve each new song they add, and the decisions here are right. The vocal sound often recalls the sound of swing-era sister groups like the Boswell Sisters. The instrumental sound is closer to Django Reinhardt jamming with friends, and the combination works beautifully.

You might expect that Sleepytime in Chinatown would be an entire album of covers of swing-era tunes. After all, we all know that they don’t write them like that anymore. But The Stolen Sweets do. Half the songs here are originals, and they stand proudly side-by-side with the covers. I was particularly struck by the use of language. Listen to the words in The Wizard of Oz, and you will notice the brilliant turns of phrase. Most of the originals here display that same love of language in service of the song. Only one, Easy on the Eyes, fails to deliver in this way; the words here sound good, but the narrative doesn’t make sense. That leaves five original songs that work beautifully. The best of these is Willie the Weeper, the Chinatown Creeper. This is a tale of jealousy, in a gangster setting, and you can imagine that James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart should have been in the film. Dinner for Two recalls a time when women had very different roles than they do now; here is a heroine whose highest ambition is to cook delicious meals for her man. With our modern perspective, we could resent or even pity her, but The Sweets make us believe in her and admire her earnest declaration of love.

The covers include the opening track, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter. The Sweets’ last album included more familiar tunes, but this was the only cover here that I was familiar with. Like the originals, the covers relate yearning, devotion and jealousy. Puttin’ It On and Guilty are notable, because the bass player, Keith Brush, gets to step out and take solos in each song. He displays the ability to add to the melody while continuing told down the beat; bear in mind that, in the absence of a drummer, the bass is often the only rhythm instrument here.

So here is an album that transports you to a different time and place without a hitch. The original songs, for the most part, work seamlessly along side the covers. The only problem is, the ride is over far too soon. The album is only 34 minutes long! I was left wanting more. And that is the mark of a job well done.

The Stolen Sweets: Willie the Weeper, the Chinatown Creeper

The Stolen Sweets: Putiin‘ It On


L said...

They're great! Thanks.

Steve said...

If you like The Stolen Sweets, and how could you not, try and track down an album by UK swing / capella group The Bowles Brothers called Roger Buys A Fridge from about 1977 or so, well worth the effort.

Darius said...

Steve, thanks for the tip. After some digging, I found streams of some of their songs here. Does anyone know where I could get downloads or CDs by them?