- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Hot Club of Cowtown

Wishful Thinking

Shout Factory

After a few years of solo and side projects, including a formative stint in Bob Dylan’s band, fiddle player extraordinaire Elana James decided to get the old band back together.

That band is the Hot Club of Cowtown, and the album that came out of the Texas-based trio’s reunion, “Wishful Thinking,” is one of the year’s most unexpected listening pleasures.

Set for its U.S. release Tuesday, the new collection is a charming, irresistible mix of the Western swing revivalism that defined Hot Club’s earlier albums and more contemporary Americana plus sultry torch songs.

The album kicks off with a valentine for longtime fans: guitarist Whit Smith’s rollicking cover of Bob Wills’ “Can’t Go on This Way.”

It’s a track that would be right at home alongside the cowboy-jazz covers that dominated Hot Club’s releases from the late ‘90s.

But the next song, the ominous country-pop of Miss James’ “Reunion,” is indicative of the group’s growth.

“Reunion” is one of several deliciously dark originals offered up by the band’s two principals, Miss James and Mr. Smith. Even their choice of covers - Mr. Smith essays the classic “Georgia,” and Miss James closes the album with a breathtaking version of the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” - seems to capture a melancholy maturity missing from their sets a decade ago.

Mr. Smith’s Appalachian-flavored “Carry Me Close,” in particular, is a poignant and moving tale of loss. Even the witty, uptempo “If You Leave Me” is a charming chronicle of a discarded lover’s groveling.

Groveling you can jitterbug to, but groveling nonetheless.

Yet as elegant and clever as Mr. Smith’s singing and guitar playing may be, it’s Miss James’ sultry voice and her incomparable fiddling that remain the Hot Club’s drawing card.

Miss James, Mr. Smith and bassist Jake Erwin (joined to good effect on this album by drummer Damien Llanes) show off their chops, trading solos and riffs on almost every song.

From the Django Reinhardt-infused instrumental romp “Heart of Romain” to the jazzy traditional “The Magic Violin,” Mr. Smith and Miss James especially seem to bring out the showmanship in each other. There’s an infectious moment at the close of “Romain” when Miss James seems to finger-pick her fiddle, harmonizing with Mr. Smith’s guitar playing note for note.

She shines on the sarcastic “What You Meant to Me” (alt-country queens such as Zooey Deschanel would die for this song) and on her gypsy odes to obscure European cafe culture, “Cabiria” (a … ummm … tribute to a 1914 silent Italian film classic) and the aforementioned “Romain.”

But it’s tracks like “One Step Closer,” Miss James’ venture into the bossa-nova territory of Diana Krall, that likely will attract new fans.

“Wishful Thinking” was released to rave reviews in Europe a couple of months back, and Washington fans won’t have to wait long to see the Hot Club try out the new material live - the band is booked Sept. 19 at Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington.

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