This is all happening too fast. Culturally, I mean. There is not enough to hold onto. We’re so beyond post-modernity, in this day of here-is-now news and hyperreal television, that graduate students can’t even begin to describe where we are in the semantic scheme of things without using at least two hyphens. There is the sense, as one form of culture subsumes another, that messages become meaningless before you can even read them, that things are over before they end. Critically speaking, it’s relativity writ large. The subway is moving so fast you can’t see what stations you’re passing. All you can make out are the maps and advertisements inside the car.
It can happen to anyone. In 1995, an obscure Austin band called 8 1/2 Souvenirs undertook the sincerest form of flattery when it made plans to bring back a form of music that had been all but lost to the larders of history: continental jazz. Fronted by French guitarist Olivier Giraud, the Souvenirs set about re-creating some of the greatest works of café blues and early swing, pieces by artists almost unknown by folks twice their age: Django Reinhardt, Serge Gainsbourg, Nino Rota. And perhaps most impressively of all, during a stretch of the ’90s gone rotten with unforeseeable tattoos and meticulous goatees, it was all done without a trace of irony. They researched Reinhardt. They trumpeted, for some reason, the fact that their tracks were laid down on the same mixing board that Elvis used. And the liner notes for their debut album, Happy Feet, featured a delightfully toney treatise on the history of the Favino guitar. It was delectable. And it sounded gorgeous. While most musicians were busy churning out bone-crunching irony, 8 1/2 Souvenirs were taking themselves, if anything, too seriously.
But it’s five years later now, and in the continuum of popular music, the distance you travel can be measured in light-years. Since the days of Happy Feet, swing has taken on a life of its own, forming one of the biggest, trendiest and, in the end, most regrettable fads in recent memory, bringing us lots of music that was big on technique but skimpy with soul. And this, it ends up, provided the flimsy backdrop for the Souvenirs’ follow-up album, Twisted Desire.
Many of the essential elements are still there. Giraud’s gutteral French vocals. The lively instrumentation. And the sultry, wax-melting delivery of lead singer Chrysta Bell. But there’s not much behind any of it. Instead of standards, the Souvenirs stack the album with originals, which don’t quite wash (“I dance alone when no one’s home,” the eighth track goes, “la la la la la la la”). Several changes in the band’s lineup have left the sound lacking (classically trained pianist Glover Gill is noticeably absent). And above all, it simply seems labored. There are too many references to cocktails, modes of dress, lifestyle. The girl on the cover has a tattoo. The new keyboardist has a Satanic goatee. Where once there was authenticity, now there’s just a study. It seems likely, looking back, that the Souvenirs were largely responsible for the Swing Resurgence. But how do you fight the physics of taste? On the fluorescent green sine wave that describes the arc of our culture, it turns out that 8 1/2 Souvenirs were riding the crest, and there’s only one direction to take from there.