The Ditty Bops, Summer Rains (The Green Witch Society, 2008)

The Ditty Bops, comprised of lovers Amanda Barrett (vocals, mandolin, ukulele) and Abby DeWald (vocals, guitar), are making an excellent musical career for themselves despite, or perhaps because of, their consistent defiance of expectations and any easy categorization. Their combination of century-old musical styles, quirky but clever lyrics, fiendishly catchy melodies, and gorgeous harmonies earned their second album Moon Over the Freeway the #1 spot on my top 10 albums of 2006. With their new effort Summer Rains, The Ditty Bops continue to move to the beat of their own drum, and they have another great assortment of songs to show for it.

While a bit more laid back than its predecessors, Summer Rains follows the same general approach to what The Ditty Bops have done in the past. Most of the top-notch supporting cast has returned, including co-producer/keyboardist Mitchell Froom, ace ragtime pianist Greg Rutledge, and drummer Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello's Attractions and Impostors. The one significant addition to the sessions for the new album is guest vocalist Jesca Hoop, who adds a third part to the harmonies on two songs. About half of Summer Rains consists of love songs written in the style of old (i.e., Jazz Age if not earlier) pop standards, but with the rest of the album Barrett and DeWald take on a number of different topics with their lyrics. "Skinny Bones" is a rousing celebration, in the spirit of the hot club jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, of being under-endowed. The bluesy "What Happened to the Radio" is pretty self-explanatory (although Pete Thomas has played on at least one better song covering the same topic). The Ditty Bops go country on "Because We Do," a sarcastic song about passively accepting things as they are. The folksy "I Feel from the Outside In" deals with being misunderstood, and "The Weeds Are Winning" is a satirical assessment of the rat race and the lifestyle that goes with it. And on the poignant closing song "Sugar and Spice," Barrett and DeWald wonder what little girls are really made of.

Having said that, the real strength of Summer Rains comes from The Ditty Bops' superior sense of song craftsmanship, even as their style generally evokes a distant past. All the songs are melodic and eminently singable (try not singing along to the chorus of "All Over You," and see how far you get), and feature Barrett and DeWald's trademark harmonies. It wouldn't be to hard to envision songs like "When's She Coming Home" or the deviously romantic single "I Stole Your Wishes" being popular hits from a bygone age, at least if you imagine they are being sung from a man's perspective. But that's the essence of The Ditty Bops' music -- they can be completely charming and boldly subversive at the same time.

In an idealized world where pop music actually required melody, catchiness, and clever lyrics, The Ditty Bops would be considered elite pop artists. As it stands, they're somewhere to the left of alternative. While I suppose that's too bad, their music is there for everybody who wants to hear it. And Summer Rains, like its two predecessors, is well worth hearing.

(The album is currently available, to the best of my knowledge, only on The Ditty Bops' website. You can purchase downloads of the songs, or buy the CD. The CD booklet comes with some pop-up art, although whether or not you think the extra pictures and artwork are worth the money will most likely ultimately depend on how highly you value frontal nudity on the inside of a CD booklet.)

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

1 comment:

jakc said...

Great review! I quite like this CD, too, though I do miss the energy and complexity of the earlier albums.