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.