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Hot Club of Cowtown: Ghost Train

Imagine a dude-ranch dustup between the chaw-chewin’ rockabillies of BR5-49 and the neoswing creepies in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and what you’d have is-well, what you’d have is a pretty pathetic fight come to think of it. Not a puncher in the bunch, sad to say. So imagine this instead: These good-natured groups decide not to fight at all-’cause love reigns on the ranch, doncha know-and instead they hoedown as one big, quirked-out band back by the barbecue pit. The resultant collaboration would no doubt sound a lot like the Hot Club of Cowtown, Austin, Texas’ boot-scootin’ boy-girl-boy trio, which stirs up sepia-shaded string jazz with bouncy Western swing.

On the band’s captivating fourth album, Ghost Train, guitarist-vocalist Whit Smith, violinist-vocalist Elana Fremerman and bassist Jake Erwin allow curiously named producer Gurf Morlix (a favorite of Lucinda Williams) to polish up their vintage sound for heightened commercial appeal. Due to a slick studio sheen, the playing is not as raw previous turns, but Fremerman’s inventive violin style can still conjure up the unique image of Bob Wills strolling through Tin Pan Alley. On album highlight “Forget-Me-Nots,” Fremerman, who also wrote the uptempo stomp and is the flat-out star of this show, basically duets with herself; her voice is a warm, cozy marvel, that plays the high-low game in the grand tradition of Patsy Cline. Never a band to play if safe, the Hot Club of Cowtown also takes on a cover of Aerosmith’s “Chip Away the Stone,” but no worries about any randy Steve Tyler impressions: All happy trails here always lead straight to the throwback music these pardners love.

Originally Published