The Spirit of St Louis
The Manhattan Transfer
2000: Atlantic 83394-2
In a recent comment on another Manhattan Transfer album, I mentioned in passing that I wasnt particularly an MT fan. Later that night I got to thinking about why it was that I wasnt, and I concluded that it was because I hadnt paid any attention to their output after Brasil (which I think had found its way onto my radar by accident in the first place). I took an unhurried reading tour through the assessments of their output at www.allmusic.com and found that I was ridiculously out of touch with what theyve been up to since then, and I took note of the range of appraisals and promptly ordered copies of their three most recent studio albums, this one included.
Although Richard Ginells review of this album, which is a tribute to Louis Armstrong (hence the title), had me at least braced for a departure from the MTs usual sound and into strange depths and unknowns, I was still simultaneously startled, disoriented, and thrilled by what hit me right off the bat here. Not every track is as bewilderingly unparalleled and ever-so-slightly-weird as Stompin At Mahogany Hall is here, but the sonic staging throughout the album is always worked masterfully but in different ways for each track. Hearing it on headphones is especially effective: you get not a smooth stereo landscape but a stereophonic placement of individual elements of the overall sound, each with its own special presence (reverb, no reverb, immediacy, scratchiness, monaural-grouping, techno-tinged roboticism, etc.), and the overall effect is absolutely arresting.
Meanwhile, of course, somewhere amid all that production artistry, theres those VOCALS, and those brilliant arrangements. In that sense the big surprise here is that some of the songs go on far longer than you expect they will do, The Blues Are Brewin being probably the most extreme example, clocking in at over 6 minutes when it could have just succinctly ended around the 4-minute mark; the continuation isnt a drawback or liability, not in the least if anything its like discovering your CD has the Special Secret Extended Full-Jam-Session recording that nobody else gets to hear.
Throughout this journey theres little sonic nuances that heighten my appreciation for whats presented here a snippet of an outtake laugh, there a juxtaposition of reverbed percussion and dry vocal tracks . And then theres the stylish use of almost-cloyingly smarmy older songs draped heavily over sampled-and-programmed structures, with the end result transcending its elements and far more. And theres quite a sprinkling of Django Reinhardt in the strumming and plucking throughout, which of course brings a special suitcaseful of its own magic and connotation to whatevers being sung on top of it (or, in this records quirky context, *beside* it).
I also love the effusive playfulness with which they approach so much of their musical heritage: Old Man Mose is a great example, as we get catapulted back into a wild 1930s standard hugely infused with nearly-as-wild 2000s energy (spiced by Tim Hausers verbal additions, a couple of which still make me giggle like I did upon first hearing them) but left untranslated into our current context. The gentler tracks are delivered with amazingly sultry indulgence, so intimate-sounding that listening to them feels like eavesdropping on lovers cooings at a cozy restaurant. Oh, and then theres Gone Fishin, which is a cute remake/tribute to the 1951 Louis Armstrong/Bing Crosby duet but with the interjected remarks updated to be in Tim Hausers and Alan Pauls own vernacular which includes what is for me the laugh-out-loud moment of the album, when the lyric Theres a hoe out in the sun gets double-entendre power thanks to the listener not necessarily realizing that theres an E at the end of hoe, hence Hausers raised-eyebrow, half-laughing response I beg your pardon?
All in all, this baby kicks some completely unprecedented ass. On top of all this, each of the singers sounds as gorgeous as ever (if not more so) both in solos and tout ensemble. I wished I could have had another full albums worth of tracks handled this way, but sustaining a good thing isnt necessarily the way to get more of it, and thus I drop the demand and bow with gratitude to the Manhattan Transfer and those who created this albums sound, and I say Thank You for a glorious and nearly unforeseen trip.
Comments © 2005 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.