Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Claudettes – Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! | Album Review

The Claudettes – Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!

Yellow Dog Records

12 tracks / 35:51

The Claudettes are a completely different group than the two-piece house band that used to help advertise drink specials from the stage for its namesake, Miss Claudette. Since I first heard them on Infernal Piano Plot…Hatched!, they have transformed from a piano and drums duo to a quartet, and this expanded roster has given the group a lot of headroom to explore new themes and sounds.

Johnny Iguana (not his real name) is a founding member of the group, wrote all of the songs, plays a truly mean piano, and adds backing vocals into the mix. He was joined in the studio by Matthew Torre on drums, and Zach Verdoorn on guitar, bass and backing vocals. These are all fine musicians, but they hit the jackpot when Berit Ulseth joined the The Claudettes as their singer two years ago. Her vocals are a wonderful blend of jazz and blues and I cannot really come up with another singer to compare her to; her sound is truly her own.

The band’s new CD, Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!, was cut mostly live at Soil of the South in Valdosta, Georgia by Mark Neil, who made the instrumentalists play the songs over and over again until they got them just right. So, there is not a lot of studio trickery and overdubs going on here, just refined talent. The group laid down twelve relatively short tracks, each of which tells an intriguing story without getting bogged down by egotistical soloing or other nonsense.

The Claudettes are hard to pin down to any one genre, which is a hard one to swallow for those who are hardcore fans of any one type of music. There is a definitely a blues influence, but there is also a heavy jazz theme, and to lesser degrees you will hear rock, boogie-woogie, punk, and god know what else. All of these elements add up to a wonderful slice of Americana, and the results are very listenable.

Their set kicks off with “Don't Stay With Me,” which presents one side of the story of unequally yoked lovers who are in a relationship that is nearing its end. This frustration is presented in the music by Verdoorn’s smoothly distorted guitar while Torres’ heavy drums create a sense of tension that does not let up until Ulseth utters the final line, “You're just as sweet as can be, but please, don't stay with me.” This mood does not lighten for the next track, “November,” which is about someone who is barely keeping it all together as they age. Johnny does a nice job of holding down the bottom end here, and I hear something new with his playing every time I listen to this song.

The sound gets a little more playful with “Give it All Up for Good,” in which Berith sings about how people addicted to social media are becoming apathetic and are disconnecting from each other. This is an easy tune to get stuck in your head, thanks to the thumpy bass part, Iguana’s hammering piano, and the catchy breaks with group harmonies. In a similar vein, “Naked on the Internet” discusses how nothing ever really goes away once it is online. This song is a bit of a departure from the others as Berith shares the lead vocals with one of the fellows (I don’t know who…), and the listener is treated to brief solos from Johnny, Zach, and Matthew, which is saying a lot as this song is not much more than two minutes long.

There is not enough room to write about all twelve of the songs on the album, but they are all thoughtfully written with lyrics that cover both the troubles with relationships and the increasingly terrible social situation in our world. I must point out though, that there is a lovely instrumental on the playlist too, and that would be the title track. “Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium” shows what the rest of the band is doing while the listener is distracted on the other tracks by the clever lyrics and sultry vocals. And what they are doing is laying down a sick jam, as these guys can really play: Iguana has a killer dexterity and a righteous touch on the keys, Verdoorn is ultimately versatile and has wicked bass and guitar tones, and Torre is a frickin’ drumming machine. Damn.

Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! is a fine album, but the Claudettes put on an excellent live show too and the band’s energy and musicianship are first rate. They bought a new van and are touring endlessly around the United States, and they even have some European dates coming up. Head over to their website to hear some samples and to see where they are going to be playing next – I have seen their new line-up at the Viper Room and they are amazing - trust me, you want to see them in person!

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