The Claudettes – Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium
Yellow Dog Records – 2018
12 tracks; 36 minutes
The Claudettes started out as a piano/drum duo, taking their name from the owner of the club where they played initially. Two years ago they added a guitarist and a dedicated vocalist and the quartet has now issued the band’s third album. The central figure is Johnny Iguana who has played with many of the Chicago blues greats but in The Claudettes the music takes on a wider palette. Johnny is on piano, keyboards and vocals, Matthew Torre on drums, Berit Ulseth on vocals and Zach Verdoorn on Bass VI guitar (a six stringed bass that looks like a guitar). Johnny wrote all the material (under his given name Brian Berkowitz).
Traditional blues fans should be warned that there is little straight blues content here. Berit sings in a jazz chanteuse style and the music is dominated by Johnny’s piano. Opening cut “Don’t Stay With Me” portrays an ill-matched couple, the music’s alternation between pounding rhythms and quieter interludes perhaps reflecting the storyline. “November” has pounding piano and keening guitar behind Berit’s cool-toned vocal which seems slightly lost in the mix. “Give It All Up For Good” has more of a blues base and “Naked On The Internet” injects some political themes about being unable to control what gets out there: “America saw him naked and a hundred years from now he’ll still be naked on the internet”, the later reference to Russia perhaps reflecting the current difficulties of the presidential incumbent!
The band drops the pace for “Pull Closer To Me” as Johnny plays some romantic piano appropriate for the lyrics. Title track “Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium” in an instrumental, described in the sleeve notes as ‘gonzo-blues with thundering fuzzed-out bass, a 70’s four-on-the-floor disco beat and a bridge that sounds like a deleted solo section of Yes’s “Roundabout”’ – possibly, just sounded confused to these ears! Things get clearer on “Bill Played Saxophone”, a political piece contrasting the ‘good old days’ of Bill Clinton playing sax in the White House and George W. Bush’s rush to war. “Influential Farmers” returns to the piano-dominated music, a song inspired by hearing the term on radio but the vocals are far from clear to appreciate the meaning. “Death And Traffic” reflects on the news media’s obsession with immediate (and often bad) news and “Total Misfit” returns to the theme of alienation in our society, neither song having any blues element. Inspired by the very brief marriage of a friend, “Taco Night Material” follows a girl who finds it hard to adapt to the confines of marriage. The busy piano lends a punk feel to the tune as the wife ends up plotting the murder of the husband! More lyrical angst about modern life fills “Utterly Absurd” with more pounding piano and dissonant vocals by Johnny to close out this unusual album.
While only tangentially related to the blues, the album demonstrates a quirky approach.