Review: Thierry Massoubre & Jefferson Louvat - A Walk With You


Bluegrass Unlimited - Thierry Massoubre & Jefferson Louvat - A Walk With YouTHIERRY MASSOUBRE & JEFFERSON LOUVAT
Acoustic Music Records

What do you get when a French guitarist and a Belgian mandolin player record in Nashville for a German record label? In the case of Massoubre the guitarist and Louvat the mandolinist (who also picks some guitar), it’s a splendid acoustic, all-instrumental CD sure to please anyone who appreciates inventive, melodic musicianship with deeply planted American roots.

The duo is aided by Stuart Duncan (fiddle), brother Steve Louvat (banjo), and Missy Raines (bass), who provide understated backing on some tracks, notably “Crossing The Strings,” which features some mind-bending crosspicking by Massoubre, and “Frosty Hill,” but the spotlight here is on the two main musicians whose interplay approaches the magical. The bluesy, haunting “Vendanges tardives” is a prime example of this alchemy, a tune played with no flash, but only the right notes that create a striking, simple beauty. The leisurely “Les vacances de Chester B.” features some Chet Atkins-like fingerpicking from Massoubre, while “Dun Laoghaire Reel” shows off the best of Louvat’s clean, precise, and tasteful mandolin.

The overall effect of this CD matches its title and the mood of its title track: it’s very much like a walk through the woods with a couple of great friends. The terrain and scenery change along the way, but the exquisite company knits it all together into an extraordinary, unforgettable experience. (Acoustic Music GmbH & Co.KG, Postfach 1945, 49009 Osnabruck, Germany, AKH

Review: Rhonda Vincent - Taken


Bluegrass Unlimited - Rhonda Vincent - TakenRHONDA VINCENT
Upper Mgmt. Music

In recent years, Rhonda Vincent has emerged as a creative dynamo. Fueled by an incisive combination of ambition and creativity, she has steadily expanded her audience and honed her craft while keeping a razor’s edge focus on the integrity and immediacy of her music.

On Taken, her latest release, Vincent has sharpened that edge to an even finer point. All throughout, she sounds as sharp, shiny and on-the-money as a freshly minted penny.

She coproduced these 12 tracks with the four members of her long-time band, The Rage (Hunter Berry, fiddle; Mickey Harris, acoustic bass and harmony vocals; Ben Nelson, guitar and harmony vocals; and Aaron McDaris on banjo). This time around, she also played all her own mandolin parts while turning in some of her best vocal performances ever. Taken is also Vincent’s debut release for Upper Management, her own record label.

The songs here range from vibrant contemporary bluegrass breakdowns to shimmering pop-flavored ballads. The title tune, along with a soulful remake of the 1979 Ronnie Milsap hit, “Back On My Mind,” fall into this latter category. Both are bolstered with austere, tasteful bluegrass arrangements. On the old-timey side of the mix, the lilting “Song Of The Whippoorwill” (which Vincent co-wrote with Tracy Starling) is such a pluperfectly high-lonesome ballad that it could easily pass as a long-lost gem from the Hank Williams catalogue.

On “In The Garden By The Fountain” (written by Roger Brown) Vincent delivers a soaring duet with guest Dolly Parton. She works similar vocal magic on “When The Bloom Is Off The Rose” (also penned by Brown) with her vocal guests Sally Berry and Tensel Sandker. On the woefully sad “A Little At A Time,” Vincent employs her subtle and artful sense of vocal phrasing to wring several handkerchiefs worth of sweet pathos out of the tortured lyrics. In a far more lighthearted vein, “Ragin’ Live For You” is a rollicking, autobiographical celebration where Vincent and her long-time band showcase their hot licks and their sheer love of performing live.

All in all, the Rhonda Vincent we hear on these tracks has matured and refined her talents to a new pinnacle. It’s hard to imagine how she’ll top these performances. Then again, it seems certain that she’ll find a way. (Upper Mgmt. Music, 1036 Tulip Grove Rd., Nashville, TN 37076, BA

Review: Banjo On The Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years - By Dick Spottswood


Bluegrass Unlimited - Banjo On The Mountain: Wade Mainers' First Hundred Years - By Dick SpottswoodBANJO ON THE MOUNTAIN: WADE MAINER’S FIRST HUNDRED YEARS
Univ. Press of Miss. Discography, index, 134 pp., b&w pictures, paperback, $30.
(Univ. Press of Miss., 3825 Ridgewood Rd., Jackson, MS 39211,

Wade Mainer has a unique perspective on bluegrass since he saw it developed firsthand. Hailing from the fertile music-filled hills of North Carolina, he played on the same circuit as the Monroe Brothers before Bill formed the Blue Grass Boys. “Bluegrass,” Mainer says, “is show music instead of listening music.”

Dick Spottswood’s highly anticipated biography spans a century in which the genres of country and bluegrass music developed. Spottswood chronicles Mainer’s playing career, which started in the early 1930s with his brother, fiddler J.E. Mainer, and continues today with his wife (of 73 years) Julia. Wade played a key role in popularizing many familiar bluegrass standards including “Reuben” (his recording was the first to include banjo), “Little Maggie,” “Dream Of The Miner’s Child,” “Uncloudy Day,” and many more.

Banjo player Stephen Wade contributes a fascinating essay deconstructing Mainer’s banjo style, explaining his two-finger approach and emphasizing his attitude that “the music had to fit the story being told.” Mainer chose not to play clawhammer because “the tunes didn’t come out” in that style.

Pictures and memorabilia make up most of the book, captioned by entertaining and personal comments from Wade and Julia. Especially interesting are letters booking Mainer to play for the Roosevelts in the White House in 1941 and an effusive two-page epistle from Woody Guthrie. A complete discography follows the text. Few artists can boast a list of recordings that stretch from 78s through CDs, but Wade Mainer can, and that makes him a true country music treasure. CAH

Review: Big Country Bluegrass - The Boys In Hats & Ties

Bluegrass Unlimited - Big Country Bluegrass - The Boys In Hats & TiesBIG COUNTRY BLUEGRASS
Rebel Records

You could see adjustments being made to the band’s song selection around the time of their twentieth anniversary CD. Before that, the band had used a healthy dose of standards. With Twenty Years Of Grass, they became more far-reaching. That process continues today with this very good new recording on which only two tracks qualify as old favorites. The two are “In Foggy Old London,” once popularized by Jimmy Martin, and “Wreck On The Highway,” a classic done in classic style. Both are excellent. Jeff Michael really puts himself into “Wreck…” and Teresa Sells does the same on “In Foggy…”

This is a group that always puts itself into every song. I would say that the passage of time has brought a certain maturing with it, and that that has meant some of their rawer, sparking feel has been tempered, but that that has also produced a more cohesive, warmer sound. There is still a wealth of energy to be sure, channeled now into a set of more obscure covers such as Roy McMillan’s “Lonely Old Man,” band originals such as Michael’s “I’m Gonna Walk The Streets Of Gold,” and covers of newer compositions beginning with Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s title song, one of those portrait-like reminiscence songs that should have chart potential. That gives way to a make-a-comeback song “All The Way To Nothing,” followed by Cullen Galyean’s torrid “Black Mountain Special.” Of the three instrumentals Tut Taylor’s tribute to his A-5 mandolin, “Prodigal 5,” is a rocking and swaying tune done extremely well, and Michael’s fiddle tune, “Rendevous,” rips right along. Johnny Williams also contributes one of his patented catch-phrase songs, in which a man says to his wife: If you’re driving me crazy/ You don’t have far to go.

It is worth noting that the clean, throaty mandolin leads of Tommy Sells all through is one of this album’s highlights, and that these songs represent the final recordings of the band’s late bassist, Alan Mastin. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, BW

Review: Donna Hughes - Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies

Bluegrass Unlimited - Donna Hughes - Hellos, Goodbyes & ButterfliesDONNA HUGHES
Rounder Records

This is Donna Hughes’ fourth recording. Fifteen songs, and she wrote them all and is strongly backed by a large cast of top players, among them Scott Vestal on banjo, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Randy Kohrs (who on “Cut Your Losses” has the album’s most ear-catching solo) on reso-guitar, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle, and from her own band, Brian Stephens on some dynamic lead guitar.

Whether she is writing about longing for the (seemingly) untroubled life of a “Butterfly” as a solution to her problems or loneliness, or about missing her father and wondering if that’s him “Saying Hello” in various forms of natural phenomena, or about a husband finding a younger woman to soothe his “Mid-Life Crisis,” Hughes cuts right to the story with concrete language. Certainly there are a few scattered metaphors here and there. What songwriter can resist them? But, for the most part, she is refreshingly direct. Your car looked good in my driveway, she sings in “The Last Thing I Needed.” People on ferris wheels sometimes lose a shoe, she sings as she catalogues things you can lose in “Losing You.” I was the woman who picked up his clothes, she warns in “Mid-Life Crisis.” All simple. All direct. Moreover, she’s not afraid of odd forms in song construction, nor does she shy away from using modern images such as the Jerry Springer Show or Just For Men hair dye or lost golf balls to color her stories. That’s all to the good. We need more of that in bluegrass.

Near the end of the album is “Blackbeard,” a historic retelling of the pirate’s career, missing only the burning embers he used to tie in his beard. As far as I can tell, it’s the only bluegrass song about “Blackbeard,” and proves to be a highlight on an album of interesting and direct songwriting. (Concord Music Group, Inc., 100 N. Crescent Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, BW

Review: The Honey Dewdrops - These Old Roots

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Honey Dewdrops - These Old RootsTHE HONEY DEWDROPS
No Label
No Number

A female lead singer who sings her own compositions in a low, powerful voice is paired with a male lead guitarist who sings harmony. No, it isn’t Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but this duo does not suffer from the comparison. Nine of the ten songs on this CD are originals by husband and wife Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish. The tenth song is “Can’t Get A Letter From Home” from the singing of Addie Graham of Magoffin County, Ky. Laura sings all lead vocals and plays rhythm guitar and lead guitar on two songs. Kagey sings harmony and plays lead guitar and mandolin. Barry Lawson plays bass on “That Good Old Way.”

They open with “Amaranth,” a plaintive lament of the lack of love. “Test Of Time,” however, is about lasting love. “Nobody In This World” is about losing love. In “Goodbye And Farewell,” she is leaving. These are all classic themes, but they get a fresh and unique treatment here. Wortman can sing in a high, pure voice or with a deeper rasp as the lyrics demand. The accompaniment is always tasteful and appropriate.

The songs are all well-crafted with powerful imagery of flowers, heaven, the creek in the woods, the wildcat and hawk in the mountains. The CD finishes with a rousing gospel number, “That Good Old Way.” Highly-recommended for those who like topnotch duet singing with roots in old-time and bluegrass. (Honey Dewdrops, 21 Vineyards Ct., St. Charles, MO 63304.) SAG

Review: New County Grass - Start The Whole Thing Over

Bluegrass Unlimited - New County Grass - Start The Whole Thing OverNEW COUNTY GRASS
Old Homestead Records

From up in Flint, Mich., comes New County Grass, a four-piece band that shows much skill and energy as it looks to the bluegrass music from the late 1970s on back for its inspiration and material. Of the 12 songs on their debut recording, only “Start The Whole Thing Over,” written by banjoist Dean DuBois, is an original. The balance includes such standards as “Sweetheart You’ve Done Me Wrong,” “Someone Took My Place With You,” “Lonesome Feeling,” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” but also several tunes you won’t hear too many other places, Jimmie Skinner’s “I’m Afraid To Love You Anymore,” and Red Allen’s “You Will Always Be Untrue” and Byron Berline’s instrumental “Hot Burrito Breakdown.”

All those, indeed all the songs here, are done well. The lead singing is pretty good, the harmonies better. Instrumentally, the star of the recording is guitarist Kyle Estep. DuBois and mandolinist Duane Estep play well all through and around, and Brent Estep keeps a firm rhythm, but it is Kyle Estep who contributes the most impressive solos, particularly the way in which he keeps his ideas flowing from one line to the next.

What keeps this from being more than an average-to-good recording, however, is that there are a few too many standards done too familiarly. For every “You Will Always Be Untrue,” there are two or three oft-recorded songs in need of the band’s own personal stamp. That ratio is fine if you’re making a recording for fans to remember your show, but more is needed to go farther and attract a wider audience. The key change they use at the end of “Someone Took My Place With You” is a start. It’s not all that original, but it does set their version apart from the original. More of that and a better ratio of original or more obscure material would have shown this talented band to better advantage. (Old Homestead Records, P.O. Box 100, Brighton, MI 48116, BW

Review: Jimmy Gadreau - Bits And Pieces

Bluegrass Unlimited - Jimmy Gadreau - Bits And PiecesJIMMY GAUDREAU
Goose Creek Music
No Number

“Noodlin’” is the first track on Jimmy Gaudreau’s new recording Bits And Pieces, and the tune is just that—Gaudreau seemingly playing at random on the mandolin. At first, that seems an odd choice for an opener, but as Jimmy says in the notes: “For me, it all starts with noodlin’.” Taken that way, it becomes an inspired start, though perhaps not a track you’ll return to again and again. It is, however, only a minute long, so who knows?

The other 16 instrumentals here are a different matter. Most of those bear repeating and often. There, you’ll find Gaudreau blending styles and making musical references by the handful. Some of them are reworkings of older tunes. “New Home Sweet Home,” for example, takes that old chestnut and restructures the melody (though it is still in there) and gives it a light calypso-like rhythm. “Joe’s Old Clock” reworks “Old Joe Clark,” while “Just That Simple” hints at “Leather Britches.” Both keep to the fiddle-tune style.

Other tunes, such as “Jesse And Don” and “Edsel’s Tailpipe” incorporate touches of playing from Gaudeau’s heroes and influences. “Jesse And Don” throws together Jesse McReynolds’ crosspicking and Don Rich’s Bakersfield guitar in an inspired and all too short track. If you don’t know Don Rich’s style by name, you’ll know it when you hear it—think Buck Owens. “Edsel’s Tailpipe” on the other hand is what happens when bluegrassers meet the surf set. The result is a medium stomp with overtones of The Ventures. It would be the album favorite if it weren’t for the lovely “Florentine Waltz” (3:11 of tremolo with sinuous fiddle support) and Hot Club stylings of “El Doggo,” which features excellent banjo from Jens Krüger and jazz guitar from Frank Vignola.

If I have one complaint, it is that the pieces are often too short. Six truly are “bits” of barely a minute long, and only two top three minutes. Of course, as they say, always leave them wanting more. (Goose Creek Music, 17723 Tranquility Rd., Purcellville, VA 20132, BW

Review: Ian Simpson & John Kane - The Banjo: Misunderstood Maligned Magic

Bluegrass Unlimited - Ian Simpson & John Kane - The Banjo: Misunderstood Maligned MagicIAN SIMPSON, JOHN KANE
ABC Music

Australia is the home to one of the best mandolin makers on Earth, so should it be a surprise that it also has some mighty fine banjo pickers there, too? Well, as this CD aptly demonstrates, it does. Simpson and Kane both play, one in bluegrass style and the other in a clawhammer style. They are both facile and know how to arrange a tune for the ultimate result. There are medleys of rags (“The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”), medleys of mule tunes, a Scruggs medley of “Earl’s Breakdown,” “Dear Old Dixie,” and “Flint Hill Special,” and a medley of classical pieces from Bach and Beethoven. And, they all display consummate skill and, at times, a touch of humor. In between, we are treated to mostly banjo-only versions of bluegrass and old-time tunes that are nearly textbook perfect renditions. That is not to infer there is a lack of spontaneity or improvisation in these performances. There is plenty of that. The banjo duet on “Cluck Old Hen” is great, with lots of strangeness of the very best kind.

There is guitar and bass accompaniment to most tracks, with some fiddle and piano where appropriate. These performances are amazing. All of you aspiring banjo pickers and serious fans of the banjo out there need to hear this CD. It is full of great tunes and strong arrangements. It is great to hear the wide variety of music, tastefully done on the banjo. (Universal Music, 3 Munn Reserve, Millers Point, NSW, P.O. Box 17, Australia, RCB

Review: Dead Man's Hollow - Angel's Share

Bluegrass Unlimited - Dead Man's Hollow - Angel's ShareDEAD MAN’S HOLLOW
Acoustic Americana

This sextet sings their brand of down-home gospel in fine harmonies with a folksy touch, sung with a grin and a good bit of ability. The clawhammer banjo is a nice touch but is simple in its application. The lead instruments do their jobs but won’t make anyone’s jaw drop. The real strength of this band is in their vocals. The cut, “When Jesus Wept” serves as a case in point. This a cappella cut is the strongest on the project.

Nine of the eleven cuts are originals by various members of the band. The songs reveal that they have given much thought to their music and they are developing as songwriters. The songs are on par with a lot of the contemporary Christian folk music.

The sweet female harmonies are undeniably pretty, marked by the breathy vocals that so pervade the Americana genre today. This recording will appeal to folks who love gospel music and whose taste run to the more folk side of acoustic music. (Acoustic Americana, 5746 Union Mill Rd., PMB 55, Clifton, VA 20124.) RCB

Review: Fitzmaurice

Bluegrass Unlimited - FitzmauriceFITZMAURICE
No Label
No Number

When looking back at the development of the subgenre of newgrass music, what distinguished trend-setting bands such as Newgrass Revival and Skyline were the presence of a strong lead vocalist to match collective outstanding instrumental skills, a body of distinctive and unique material, and a collective ear for fine arranging.

Fitzmaurice displays all of these strengths on what turns out to be, amazingly enough, their debut recording. They’re fronted by the powerful and souldful lead vocals of Maria Fitzmaurice, who channels her apparent rock and blues influences quite well into the band’s progressively grassy style. But the two bandmembers who step out for solo turns, Sarah Fitzmaurice (apparently Maria’s twin sister) and mandolinist Brandon Snellings (oddly enough, the remaining bandmembers’ last names are not listed either on their CD packaging or on their Web site bio!!) match Maria note for note.

Except for a straight-ahead and effective cover of Ralph Stanley’s “Gonna Paint The Town,” the album features all originals, going beyond the tribulations of romance to cover such topics as the moving ballad of a homesick soldier (“Barely A Man”) and the prisoner’s lament “25 Years.” The banjo and fiddle of, respectively, Mike Simms and Aaron Malone are clean and effective but always work within the arrangement to serve the song, even when stretching out on the CD’s two instrumentals, “Annie Kay” and “Tumbledown.”

Traditionalists may not like the occasional presence of piano and drums, but both are used sparingly and softly within the context of the sound Fitzmaurice is trying to achieve. This is a group with ability, style, and originality that are absolutely astonishing for being so new. They’re definitely worth keeping an eye on, and one can only hope that they stay together long enough to carve out their own niche in newgrass music. (E-mail:, HK

Review: The Rubber Knife Gang - Drivin' On

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Rubber Knife Gang - Drivin' OnTHE RUBBER KNIFE GANG
No Label
No Number

Hailing from the Cincinnati area, the Rubber Knife Gang inhabits that familiar territory somewhere between bluegrass and folk music with a little bit of Celtic flavor added. Hank Becker (guitar), John Oaks (upright bass), and Todd Wilson (mandolin) interchange vocal duties and take turns adding banjo to a few, and dulcimer to one, of the 14 tracks that span a generous 46 minutes.

This reviewer is indeed prejudiced in favor of the instrument, but the handful of banjo tracks—the driving “She’s My Only One,” the fiddle dance of “Hole In Your Soul,” and the groovy “Drink Up John”—are among the best of this entertaining lot of original compositions. The sole non-original number is a smart take on Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer,” also a banjo track with smooth guitar breaks and great rhythm.

Most of the rest of the tracks are fun listens well-suited to the pub environment in which this musical gang has operated. “Praise The Lord, Pass The Weed” is a light-hearted ditty about sharing some of nature’s bounty and is likely to gain the band some followers once it is more widely known. ( AKH

Review: Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen - At Edward's Barn

Bluegrass Unlimited - Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen - At Edward's BarnCHRIS HILLMAN AND HERB PEDERSEN
Rounder Records

Among the many charms of this instantly likeable live recording, the clincher for me is the chance to hear several classics and near classics recast from their rock and country-rock origins into an all-acoustic format, and directed that way by a player, Chris Hillman, who had a hand in the originals. Wisely, Hillman and Herb Pedersen have chosen songs from their nearly fifty year careers that translate well.

Obviously any tune that has country or folk at its roots should sound good stripped of its drums and electric excesses. “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a hit for The Byrds, certainly does. So does the Desert Rose Band hit “Love Reunited” and the country-rock Flying Burrito Brothers’ classics “Sin City” and “Wheels.” Those choices were not too difficult. The more pop-oriented Byrds’ tunes “Have You Seen Her Face” and “Eight Miles High,” however, could have posed a problem, but as it turns out, as much as the rock structure is apparent, there is enough of the folk quality about them to make their transformation extremely successful. All that said, the majority of this recording is not bluegrass, hence the “On The Edge” status. The lineup of Hillman on mandolin, Pedersen on guitar, Bill Bryson on bass, Larry Park on lead guitar, and David Mansfield on fiddle does manage a few bluegrass treatments, most notably, “Going Up Home,” “Desert Rose” (both of those with Pedersen on banjo), and “Wait A Minute,” the overall effect is more acoustic country, with the tempos mostly slow and medium.

Also included are Buck Owens’ “Together Again,” a jaunty cover of The Louvins’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” and two recent songs from Hillman, one of them a lovely Mexican-tinged love song, “Tu Cancion,” and the other an autobiographical rememberance of Hillman’s childhood horse, Ranger, titled “The Cowboy Way.” Those and a couple others round out an all-around excellent recording. (Concord Music Group, 100 N. Crescent Dr., Beverly Hills CA 90210, BW

Review: Dehlia Low - Live

Bluegrass Unlimited - Dehlia Low - LiveDEHLIA LOW
No Label
8 84052 80378 5

Are you sure this is a “live” CD? It’s hard to tell from the practically flawless performances of this Asheville, N.C., string band. On this third disc from the quintet, listeners are treated to performances recorded during the 2010 concert season at southeastern venues the Grey Eagle, Down Home, and Mockingbird.

Thirteen lucky tracks on the CD showcase the group’s songwriting talents, engaging vocal performances, and the strong instrumental chops of Stacy Claude on guitar, Anya Hinkle on fiddle, Bryan Clendenin with mandolin, Aaron Ballance on resonator guitar, and Greg Stiglets on bass. Stiglets lays down a solid rhythm accompanied by Clendenin’s skillful chopping and right-on-target mandolin breaks. Hinkle delivers a killer vocal interpretation on “Over Yonder In The Courtyard” followed by the band’s instrumental slam dunk performance on “Climbing Devil’s Pass.”

My one minor regret about the disc is that it doesn’t come across as a live CD. Except for a smattering of applause near the end of the tunes, who would know it wasn’t in the studio. Kudos to the sound crew, but I’d like to hear a little more feel from the concert scene. This CD definitely goes into my rotation.(Dehlia Low, 322 Riverview Dr., Asheville, NC 28806, BC

Review: The Toy Hearts - Femme Fatale

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Toy Hearts - Femme FataleTHE TOY HEARTS
Woodville Music

There’s always been a kind of underground country/city connection between bluegrass and swing music, with many skilled players and singers enjoying at least a passing acquaintance with both styles. It makes sense if you think about it; both require technical virtuosity, a firm grasp of the stylistic idiom, and both forms have a rabid core of fans, both purist and eclectic.

A band that calls itself The Toy Hearts is bound to be associated with bluegrass, as per the classic Bill Monroe song, and this unusual trio definitely has an appreciation for the form. Lead singer/mandolinist Hannah Johnson, guitarist/harmony singer Sophia Johnson, and banjoist/resonator guitarist Stewart Johnson bring in some fine reinforcements in bassist Missy Raines, fiddler Ross Holmes, and mandolinist Jesse Cobb.

Properly, most of their CD plays to their strengths in swing and blues. But, when they try to play bluegrass straight, something doesn’t quite work right. Some of it is the vocal phrasing, with the densely packed lyrics (that might work for an uptempo swing tune) sounding awkward in a bluegrass context. The guitar breaks are flashy, but sometimes just a bit too rough at breakneck tempos, and somehow the frequent G-runs aren’t enough to make it sound authentic. When the tempos slow down a bit, as on the pretty waltz “Tear Stained Letter” (not to be confused with the Richard Thompson song) or the sweet, admittedly folksier song “The Captain,” it’s easier to appreciate the band’s strengths, both vocally and instrumentally. And they are undoubtedly a fine swing band, especially as displayed on the sultry album closer, “She Got There First.”

The Toy Hearts deserve credit for trying to pay homage to two great stylistic forms. But Femme Fatale serves as a reminder that going back and forth between them is not the easiest thing in the world for anyone. ( HK