There are plenty of sirens with torchy voices out there. Most of them front oldtimey swing jazz bands. The most gifted of them tend to drift either further into jazz, or into straight-ahead rock, a la Neko Case, where the most intriguing wiggles and secret corners of their voices are guaranteed centerstage.
Robin Aigner is one of those sirens, but even in that crowded field, she stands out. As exceptional and in-demand a vocal stylist as she is, her greatest strength is her songwriting. She has a laser sense for the mot juste. Obsessed with history, she writes in a vernacular straight from whatever era she’s channeling, packed with devious puns and double and triple entendres. As a tunesmith, she’s a connoisseur of Americana, from Appalachian folk, to early jazz, to blues and torch song from throughout the ages. Her latest album, Con Tender, with her band Parlour Game, is streaming at Bandcamp.
The album title alone gives you a good idea of where Aigner’s coming from. It could be Spanglish, a battle-of-the-sexes boxing metaphor, or caretaker to the duplicitous – or, most likely, all three. The opening track, Kiss Him When He’s Down sets Aigner’s wry prescription for how to keep a guy’s head in, um, the game to a bittersweet swing blues lit up by the interweave of Rima Fand’s violin and Michael Joviala’s clarinet over the slinky pulse of bassist Larry Cook and Gutbucket/Universal Thump drummer Adam D. Gold. Strings moves forward in time toward late 30s Ink Spots territory, a wistfully swinging tale from the point of view of a girl who thinks she’s made a break for good…but she’s left the door open just a crack.
Crazy works a charming early hillbilly swing shuffle with a sideways reference to the Patsy Cline song, Aigner admitting to a weakness for
Charmers who disarm the masses
Romeos with garden hoes
Throw me deep into the throes
A plaintively elegant waltz with a verse in subtly sarcastic Franglais, Français Salé pairs Aigner’s ukulele against Fand’s stark violin, all the way up to an unexpectedly crushing if completely understated final verse. Likewise, Aigner pairs her terse acoustic guitar with Joviala’s spacious piano over a bolero-tinged groove on Shoegazer: it’s a surprisingly sympathetic if amusing account of a guy with a fetish.
Aigner sails gently through her imperiled airplane metaphors for all they’re worth in Velocity, a gorgeous country waltz that draws comparisons to Laura Cantrell. El Paraiso draws a vivid, Marissa Nadler-esque Victorian heartbreak tableau with string band music to match its milieu. The album hits a peak with Greener, its Gatsby-era setting the exact opposite of what it seems to be, Fand’s violin and Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet flying over a tensely flurrying, flamenco-tinged beat.
A 21st century update on classic hokum blues, Your Candy’s No Good for Me, with its endless sequence of innuendos, is just plain hilarious:
Your honey’s quite the bee’s kneex
Even when I’m stung
I give your honey bear an extra little squeeze
The album comes full circle with a stark, gospel-tinged take of Wayfaring Stranger. Pulitzer Prize-winning violinist Caroline Shaw, bassist Julian Smith, harmonica player Jim Etkin, banjo player Noah Harley, guitarist David Wechsler and drummer Alice Bierhorst also contribute to this richly purist collection: look for it in a few days on the list of the year’s best here.