8 1/2 Souvenirs: Twisted Desire
by George Graham
(RCA Victor 63471 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/13/99)
There has been quite a resurgence lately of nostalgic, pre-rock styles. With the success of groups like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the swing revival bands such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the field has attracted a good number of younger performers doing everything from danceable big-band styled music to romantic cabaret to old-fashioned Western Swing to novelty songs from the 1920s. It is only natural that once a style becomes popular, creative artists will come along and try to build on it, taking the music in a different direction, rather than just reproducing the old. This week we have such a group which starts with influences from European cabaret to 1960s film music and creates an interesting style that is quite their own. The group is called 8 1/2 Souvenirs and their new second CD is named Twisted Desire.
8 1/2 Souvenirs has an interesting genesis. About ten years ago, a Frenchman named Olivier Giraud journeyed to Austin, Texas and decided to stay, liking the open musical atmosphere. But Giraud was very much influenced by European music, including the swing of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, 1960s French composer Serge Gainsbourg and film scorer Nino Rota, who created the music for many of the Felini films. Giraud would later give his group a name that is an obvious reference to Felini's famous film "8 1/2." After a few years playing around Austin, Giraud decided he wanted to form a band that would encapsulate his influences and musical vision. So he hooked up with a guitarist and later another friend who also played guitar but decided to switch to acoustic bass. The group gradually grew with the addition of a pianist who had played in a punk band, and finally vocalist Juliana Sheffield. They regularly played at the Continental Club in Austin, where after a slow start, they began to develop a following. The club's owner started a record label and signed 8 1/2 Souvenirs. But before they recorded their debut CD, Ms. Sheffield was replaced by Chrysta Bell, and they got a new acoustic bassist, Kevin Smith.
8 1/2 Souvenirs' first CD, Happy Feet, was released in September of 1998 and was an interesting blend of Giraud's stylistic influences. It consisted mostly of covers of material from Django Reinhardt, Serge Gainsbourg, plus a couple of jazz standards, as well as a trio of original pieces.
In the year since their debut, the group has gone through even more personnel changes, with the replacement of pianist Glover Gill and drummer Adam Berlin. The new lineup includes Giraud on guitars, Ms. Bell doing the vocals, bassist Kevin Smith, pianist Justin Sherburn and drummer Rob Kidd. The revised personnel brings a higher level of musicianship, and the new CD also veers away from so many covers and features more original music. There are also added string and horn sections on some of the tracks giving a bigger, though still tasteful sound. The result is music that is both more stylistically developed -- the group has evolved a distinctive sound that is more original than imitative -- and perhaps a bit more wide-ranging than before. They even cover a song by a Texas singer-songwriter, in addition to the European and cabaret influenced material. Interestingly, as a guitarist, Giraud has more in common with rock than jazz players.
Twisted Desire starts off in the swing mode with a song by rocker Ben Vaughn called Sharp Dressed Man. 8 1/2 Souvenirs gives it a spirited performance, with the help of an added horn section. The track highlights Chrysta Bell's trademark style. She exudes an air of sultry elegance even when the tune is upbeat and driving. <<>>
The group gets back to Giraud's French roots on the following track, L'Amour Toujours, which hints at the elegance of a French cabaret while the added strings turn it into a big production number. <<>>
Summoning images of an elegant and vaguely decadent ballroom dance is Eva Luna which shows some Latin-American influence. Ms. Bell really gives the song her all. The result is one of the album's highlights. <<>>
One of the more stylistically intriguing pieces the Giraud original My Baby which hints at a Memphis R&B beat, while Ms. bell is ever the elegant chanteuse. <<>>
With the group based in Austin, they have also absorbed the influence of the Texas singer-songwriter scene. So they include Lonely in Love, written by the late Walter Hyatt of Uncle Walt's Band. One could easily imagine Lyle Lovett doing this song over 8 1/2 Souvenirs' accompaniment. But with Ms. Bell's sensual vocal, the performance takes an interesting twist. <<>>
The most dance-oriented track on this CD, which as a whole is largely suitable for a formal affair, is simply called Dancin'. It was co-written with Paulo Conte, who has supplied several of the songs for the group's two albums. There has always been an international flavor to 8 1/2 Souvenires, and in this case, some of the lyrics are in Italian, while the beat is vaguely reminiscent of 1970s disco. <<>>
The most eccentric piece on the CD is Spider Lady partly sung in French by Giraud while he plays a musical saw for added mystery. <<>>
Twisted Desire the new second album by the Austin, Texas-based group 8 1/2 Souvenirs is an interesting blend of the nostalgic and elegant with a good deal of originality. It ends up sounding quite distinctive and not like just another of the growing number of swing revival bands. With French born group leader Olivier Giraud's manifestly European influences, and elegant lead vocalist Chrysta Bell, the group has come up with a very appealing and downright fun album whose audience can range from ballroom dancing enthusiasts to alternative rock fans looking for the next new thing. Overall, it's interesting, tasteful and yet lighthearted.
In terms of sound quality, we'll give this CD almost an "A." The instrumentation is generally well recorded and mixed and it has a pleasing, fairly unprocessed sound which does well by most of the acoustic instruments. But the dynamic range is not as wide as it should be for this kind of music.
Sometimes it takes an unlikely set of circumstances to make interesting and original music. Launched by a Frenchman in Texas, 8 1/2 Souvenirs is an excellent example.
(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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