The thrift-shop clothes, the vintage Weymann guitar, the demure stage name – all those clues signify, right from the start, that Miss Tess plans to take us on a retro roadtrip. The vocal stylings of the past perfectly suit her bell-like voice — more Madeleine Peyroux or Zooey Deschanel than Norah Jones – with its offbeat blend of sassiness and winsome charm.
Gimmicks like that can easily fall flat, and I must admit I felt a little trepidation as I first put Miss Tess’s newest CD, Darling, Oh Darling, on my player. It didn’t take long, though, for me to relax and breathe a sigh of relief. Miss Tess has the chops to pull it off.
To classify this Boston-based singer-songwriter as merely a jazz singer would miss the point – she’s a musical chameleon, recalling at various moments Tom Waits’ barfly humor, the cabaret-rock of Beirut, or even the wink-wink wit of early Bette Midler. On previous albums (this is her fifth), Miss Tess has included a fair number of jazz standards, but Darling, Oh Darling takes a bigger leap — Miss Tess has written every track, revolving like a vintage jukebox through a whole catalog of musical styles. What’s impressive is how thoroughly she has absorbed the old-school genres – these aren’t just catchy songs with retro arrangements, you’d swear they were 30- or 40-year-old standards. She’s equally adept at the fast-talking scat of “That Ooh Ooh Ooh” and the Dixieland strut of “Saving All My Love”; she can shift seamlessly from the gentle oompah waltz of “Time Can Take the Pain Away” to the rockabilly kiss-off of “I Don’t Wanna See You Anymore.” There’s a risk involved, of course; some of the genres she explores don’t suit her voice or my predilections. Nevertheless, the lady gets top marks for trying.
Her stylized songs – both tongue-in-cheek toe-tappers and campy strolls – are a hoot, but the numbers that really won me over were more mainstream tracks, songs that prove she’s got substance as well as style. There’s the title track, “Darling Oh Darling,” a yearning two-step with poetic lyrics like “There’s a beating heart under my skin / It took all I had just to let you in / Tonight,” sung against a plangent pedal steel. The lilting “Love” is a tuneful (and refreshingly upbeat) meditation on the fleeting nature of romance. “Awake,” with its brooding dissonances and wistful banjo shuffle, crystallizes an almost existential moment between waking and sleeping. She’s got a wonderful ear for melody, whether it’s a catchy upbeat number or a haunting slow song; her tunes take surprising turns, but it doesn’t take long before you find yourself humming along.
Credit must also be given to Miss Tess’s backing band – a lean but multitalented ensemble that includes Paul Dilley on upright bass, Gillian DeLear on drums, and the marvelous Alec Spiegelman on just about any woodwind instrument you could ask for. Spiegelman’s clarinet in particular lends extraordinary texture to several tracks – when was the last time a clarinet trill made you laugh out loud?
I’ve been listening to this CD for days now, wearing off its initial strangeness, settling into its softly burnished groove. What started out sounding to me like a novelty album is just endearing now, full of oddball personality. Unfortunately, in the decentralized music business of today, an offbeat charmer like this record could easily get lost, dropped into the bottomless pit between jazz and alternative music. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen – this record is too much fun to go unheard. To order yours, visit CD Baby.