If nostalgia is defined as a sentimental emotional attachment to your own past, it doesn’t really describe the effect that the newly released album Boardwalk Empire Volume 1: Music From the HBO Original Series has on this listener. This is music from the prohibition era, the roaring twenties, the jazz age. Old as I am, that’s just a little bit before my time. Not that I am unfamiliar with some of music—much of it was still around when I was a child; not that I am unfamiliar with the people who made it famous—many of them were still around. Still, it was not the music of my youth, and it is surely not the music of the youth of probably 99.9% of today’s audience. If this music is going to appeal to a 21st century audience, it’s not going to do so because of nostalgia, but because it’s great music.
While there is no question that the music is more than perfect in the context of the series, it is, after all, the music that defined the age. It goes with the bootleg gin, the speakeasies and the gangsters in popular imagination, much like hip hop and grunge will go with Google and smart phones in future generations’ image of our own era. Still, music that works with a series may not work all that well when it stands alone.
That said, this is music that works. The sixteen songs on Volume 1 don’t sound like antiques. With perhaps an exception or two the music is developed with a modern sensibility. For the most part singers don’t attempt to mimic the vocals of the stars of the era. The one exception is Stephen DeRossa, who does a pretty fair imitation of bug eyed song and dance man Eddy Cantor. Kathy Brier, who plays the red hot momma Sophie Tucker, sounds an awful lot better than Tucker ever sounded. Her powerful performance on the classic “Some of These Days” accompanied by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks, transforms what could have just another old chestnut into a living musical experience. Her versions of Irving Berlin’s “After You Get What You Want (You Don’t Want It)” and the lesser known “Don’t Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls” add their own lively twists as well. She is what Tucker might have been if she were singing today.
Other singers are less interested in channeling twenties counterparts. Loudon Wainwright III’s mellow vocal on the traditional Irish folk ballad, “Carrickfergus” wouldn’t be out of place on a contemporary folk album. Catherine Russell belts out “Crazy Blues” in traditional style, while the arrangement on Nellie McKay’s “Wild Romantic Blues” uses syncopation and irony, which she captures in her vocal. Leon Redbone, in a radio flavored voice complete with a bar or two of whistling, delivers an understated “Sheik of Araby.” Martha Wainwright adds a playful subtlety to the lyric of “All By Myself.” Probably the most ballyhooed song on the album is Regina Spektor’s “My Man,” a song made famous first by Fanny Brice, and then by Barbara Streisand portraying Brice. Spektor’s take on the song is perhaps the most contemporary of all in its conception, but what they have all managed to do is re-energize the material for the modern audience. That is no mean accomplishment.
Much of the credit has to go to the show’s musical supervisor Randall Poster, who creator/producer Terence Winter credits with bringing Dixieland bandleader Giordano on board. Besides providing the accompaniment for most of these singers, Giordano and his band contribute some absolutely brilliant instrumental tracks. They take a virtually unknown piece like “Livery Stable Blues” and turn it into a neighing classic. More famous songs like “Margie” and “Darktown Strutters Ball” get complete makeovers; both are absolute gems. He and the Nighthawks even manage to transform themselves into a dance band for the Paul Whitman Orchestra hit “Japanese Sandman.”
In an on-line interview, Giordano explains what the show’s creators were after: “When they first came to me with this project, they said, ‘You’re in this band in Atlantic City. You play dance music, but you’re hearing about this new jazz music.’ It really was new then…[They said] we want you to cover some of this music with your energy.” No question, they got what they wanted. More important, this is Volume 1, let’s hope that Volume 2 is in the works, and that it’s just as good.