Alluringly Torchy Retro Sounds from Miss Tess and the Talkbacks

by delarue

So many singers in retro music mimic their influences, but Miss Tess has her own nonchalantly warm voice. She’s got a little grit and she bends the blue notes, but not too hard. You can tell she’s listened to Billie Holiday, but she’s not trying to be anyone other than herself. Miss Tess doesn’t sound like anybody else; in fact, maybe someday other singers will be imitating her. And she’s an excellent guitarist, too. Likewise, she writes songs that sound like classics from the 1930s through the 1950s. Her latest album, Sweet Talk, with her killer backing band, the Talkbacks – Will Graefe (also of the brilliant dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi) on lead guitar, Larry Cook on upright bass (with Danny Weller on the album tracks), and Matt Meyer on drums – also might be her darkest yet. She’s gone on record as saying that she wanted to record the album “slow and strange” and a lot of that comes through.

To her further credit, all but one of the songs – other than the Ink Spots’ Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, redone as a fetching ballad that reminds of Daria Grace – are originals. Don’t Tell Mama starts out on a sultry tone with just guitar and vocals: “I see your glass is empty, hows about another round, what a sentimental feeling we have found,” Miss Tess cajoles, Graefe following with a searing bent-note solo, taking the song forty years forward into 1970 or so. The band follows that with the pedal steel-driven honkytonk of Never Thought I’d Be Lonely and then the haunting suicide bolero shuffle Adeline, Graefe once again taking the spotlight with his creepily surreal solos over blippy funeral organ.

If You Wanna Be My Man, a midtempo swing blues, brings back the low-key, sultry, jazzy vibe. It could could be Rachelle Garniez at her most nonchalantly upbeat: hokum blues humor, urban sophistication. People Come Here for Gold swings along on a brisk backbeat swamp rock groove – it might be a subtle anti-gentrification polemic couched in an oldtime vernacular. This Affair kicks off with a long bass solo and then morphs into a noir bossa nova tune with yet another brilliant, spiraling, Jerry Miller-esque guitar solo.

The slow, pretty country waltz Save Me, St. Peter has fun with Biblical metaphors, a dark song with playful imagery. Likewise, Everybody’s Darling contrasts Meyer’s vaudeville rimshots and Graefe’s lively, Matt Munisteri-ish solo with a brooding, bittersweet lyric and vocals. And New Orleans, upbeat as it is, keeps the bittersweet saloon jazz feel going. Miss Tess and the Talkbacks are at the big room at the Rockwood this Tuesday, July 16 at 8 PM; the similarly torchy but more pop-oriented Sophie Auster (Paul’s kid) plays afterward.