Music Reviews


This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles is going to introduce us to the dance club style now popular in Europe called electro-swing. The music blends some of the vintage horns, vocals and style associated with performers like Django Reinhart and Woody Herman, with the modern electronic beats and hipster style associated with performers like Daft Punk.


MILO MILES, BYLINE: When I first found out that a new style of dance music had conquered whole clubs in Europe, particularly France, I was put off by the name: electro-swing. Immediately I thought of the so-called swing revival of the 1990s. Not only is swing a term with a notoriously slippery definition, the swing revival bands had little to do with any possible idea of swing.

They're mostly jump blues and rockabilly recyclers with the subversion and rebellion of the original music turned into mere party time and dress up. I didn't care for it at all. Electro-swing, however, is rooted in a notion that has been floating around modern dance music for quite awhile. It's fascinating to follow how it developed over time.

Here's an example from 1983, a treatment of "Sing, Sing, Sing" by The Broads.


THE BROADS: (Singing) We're gonna make a show, so don't be slow, now go, go, go. We're gonna make a show, so don't be slow, now go, go, go. We're gonna make a show, so don't be slow, now go, go, go. We're gonna make a show, so don't be slow, now go, go, go.

MILES: A more regularly cited predecessor of electro-swing is the 1994 hit by the rapper and producer Lucas. His "Lucas with the Lid Off" has staying power that would prove to be his one moment in the spotlight.


LUCAS: (Singing) Whatever bubbles, bubbles up. Come follow me around, come follow me now. Whatever bubbles, bubbles up. Come follow me around, come follow me now. Whatever bubbles, bubbles up. Come follow me around, come follow me now. Whatever bubbles, bubbles up. Come follow me around, come follow me now. Zow, zow, zow. Watch me go-oh. Strike the right chord, and I rap, rap my skull cap.

MILES: More than a decade after "Lucas with the Lid Off," a strange thing began to happen. What had been an infrequent novelty notion of mixing electronic and '30s beats with scat and big-band-ish horn solos, became more and more regular with European dance producers and musicians, at least as part of their repertoire, such as the 2006 number "Chambermaid Swing."


MILES: Most emerging styles of music benefit from a defining collection of songs that shows where it's coming from. For electro-swing, that anthology came in 2009 with "White Mink, Black Cotton," subtitled "Electro Swing Versus Speakeasy Jazz." The first disc of "White Mink, Black Cotton" features a smartly chosen program of the finest modern electro-swingers.

The second disc is a canny selection of tracks from Woody Herman, Pee Wee King and, of course, Django Reinhart. The two discs together make a strong case for electro-swing, hearing, understanding and updating the hep-cat attitudes and sound of 80 years ago. Here's a modern electro-swing piece, "Gypsy Doodle," by Analogik.


ANALOGIK: (Singing) The Gypsy Doodle is easy to find. It's always flowing in the back of your mind. You never know it until it's too late, and then you're in such a terrible state. Like (unintelligible). That's the way the Gypsy Doodle works. That's the way the Gypsy Doodle works.

MILES: And "Gypsy Doodle" sits comfortably on the same collection with "A Bunch of Rhythm," by Horace Henderson, younger brother of Fletcher Henderson.


MILES: If you want to sample electro-swing, but skip the vintage material, try the superlative French anthology called simply "Electro-Swing," with the first volume being strongest. Both "Electro-Swing" and "White Mink, Black Cotton," feature the most fully developed, complete band associated with the style, Caravan Palace. I highly recommend their debut album, called just "Caravan Palace," and they have created my clear choice for this should-have-been-a-hit, "Jolie Coquine." Lucas, you and your lid move over.


MILES: How big a deal is electro-swing? Not very, but at least a few numbers will last as off-beat treats, and I'm fascinated by the story of its growth, which shows how particularly in dance music, a tossed-off novelty sound can persist and become a full-blown school. Sometimes it amounts to a classy one-roomer like electro-swing, sometimes balloons into a world-class university like hip-hop.

GROSS: Milo Miles played songs from "White Mink, Black Cotton" on the Zest label and from the "Electro-Swing Anthology," on the Wagram label.


GROSS: You can follow our blog on Tumblr to find out what's coming up on our show, read interview highlights and learn more about what's happening behind the scenes of our show.

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