CHERRY POPPIN’ DADDIES – White Teeth, Black Thoughts

CPDSomething unexpected happened in the mid/late 90s.  At the peak of ska’s third wave, typified by the likes of Less Than Jake and Mustard Plug, old fashioned swing bands began to appear alongside punk and ska bands on festival bills.  Soon, despite having more in common with Tony Bennett than The Specials, some of the kids who were growing bored of the predictable nature of the ska bands took a shine to the swing crowd with their pin-striped suits and retro spatz.  Much as he’d been the poster boy for the rockabilly revival over a decade before, Brian Setzer led the wave with his sassy big band, with the likes of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Royal Crown Revue also doing sterling work with this unlikely resurgence of old big band sounds.

Somewhere in the second division, the awfully named Cherry Poppin’ Daddies mixed swing with punkier workouts on their earlier records.  By introducing more punk and having a less purist attitude should have helped endure them to a wider cross-section of the festival crowds on the Vans Warped Tours of the age, but instead – looking at the 1996 release ‘Kids on the Street’ as a good example – all this did was make the band seem unfocused.

A band with a sporadic approach to studio work, they took an eight year hiatus at the turn of the millennium and another five years off between 2008-13, after which they dropped ‘White Teeth, Black Thoughts’ as a double disc in the US.  A year on, that album saw a belated UK release featuring the eleven songs of the first disc only.  Given that the band’s works have never been too easy to find outside of the US (although the digital age makes locating them much easier than it had been back in the 90s), why bother releasing this so much later? Surely those who wanted it had already bought the two disc import back in 2013? Why only release the first disc? It can be argued that’s the main album, but the original bonus disc was also album length the European issue comes up very short by comparison.

Whatever, for the curious and the unfamiliar, is ‘White Teeth’ worth seeking out even in its truncated form?  If you liked ‘Swingin’ Hits’, their swing-only compilation from 1997, then possibly, yes, since they’ve wisely avoided the mish-mash of styles of those early records and concentrated solely on the swing here – always their strong suit, no pun intended.  From the opening bars of ‘The Babooch’, there’s a jaunt in their step as they rattle along in a lovely 1940s manner, like a lighter Cab Calloway and Louis Prima.  The upright bass has a softness that’s surprising, while the brass section shines.  The big draw is the presence of two different backing vocals, at first growling and then blossoming into a crowd-pleasing treatment of the title inviting singalong potential.  The addition of a rattling tom in the drum department – a blatent homage to Louis Prima’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’ makes this a memorable opener.

From that point on, the band slip largely into autopilot; the music is well performed, but often lacking bite. Part of the problem in the long term is frontman Steve Perry’s (not to be confused with the ex-Journey singer) general lack of presence.  He’s never trained his voice to have any real power: he delivers most of his lines with near indifference; his nasal tones never summoning up the attention grabbing volume of Mr. Setzer, and as a white New Yorker he’s got no chance of ever replicating the hellfire growl of The Atomic Fireballs’ John Bunkley.   Looking beyond these potential shortcomings, this isn’t an album without  some enjoyment, of course. ‘Whiskey Jack’ comes with a predictable if fun hook and a blistering sax solo, ‘White Teeth falls somewhere between Sinatra and background music for a retro detective series, cheered up by a tinkling piano, while the low-key ‘Huffin’ Muggles’ mixes the Daddies’ preferred swing elements with a seedier tone and even bendier upright bass.  A mid-paced standard swinger ‘Concrete Man Blues’ brings out the best in the horns once again as they shift between parpy motifs and sagging muted sadness with ease, culminating in a full sounding riff topped with understated trombone solo and perhaps best of all ‘Doug The Jitterbug’ captures bassist Dan Schmid rattling off fast walking basslines with gusto.

Any goodwill the band build up in this time is ceremoniously crushed by an awful rendition of Bull Moose Jackson’s ‘Bow Legged Woman’, an old tune which Perry neither has the attitude or vocal depth to pull off convincingly.  It may not be entirely the vocalist’s fault, mind, since this song would be particularly grim in the hands of most.  Almost as bad, ‘Jake’s Frilly Panties’ attempts to bring some sass to the floor via a silly ditty unashamed in its recalling of ‘The Clapping Song’, but the post-production effects – a mono sounding recording and scratched record sounds to make it sound old – just end up making it hard to listen to, thus killing most of the intended joy.

While most of these tracks are well played, the largely thin sounding vocal performance means that ‘White Teeth’ is a record for existing fans only.  Those merely curious in swing revival music would be far better off buying copies of The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s ‘Dirty Boogie’ and the self-titled Big Bad Voodoo Daddy release instead – both albums are far superior to this and often available at dirt cheap prices.

April 2014