Victor and Penny’s latest gambles aren’t obvious when the curtain rises on their newest release, even for fans who’ve loved their “prohibition-era” music from the start. But with this one, Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane have taken big risks — and made them work.
For one thing, the orchestra has grown. Last September’s Victor & Penny and Their Loose Change Orchestra Live at the Living Room Theatre featured Rick Willoughby on bass and James Isaac on clarinet, but now local multi-instrumentalist Kyle Dahlquist is stepping in on trombone (and accordion, live). At a recent record release celebration, it took no fewer than nine musicians to capture the sound of the album onstage.
It’s not a Big Band yet, but for a duo that began as two voices, a guitar and a ukulele (with the spotlight on two of the best smiles in town), it’s a lot more to arrange. On Electricity, all those sounds were wrangled by Nashville producer Mitch Dane. This is the first time the duo has really relaxed the reins, and Dane helped them add instrumental depth without losing their own voltage as a duo.
“Penny’s Pounce” now has tom-tom fills and the strangely infectious “Rickshaw Chase” is much bigger, but both are as madcap as ever. The CD’s only cover, Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” draws the reluctant vampire’s tale back to King Oliver-era New Orleans, but it’s still distinctly Victor and Penny.
Still, the most dangerous tight-wire walk — and the one that matters most — is that this is an album of original music. For a group with one foot in the early part of the last century, that’s no small peril. (By comparison, their last one only had two originals.)
The CD opens slowly and sweetly. “Day Off Boogie” is a glimpse into the band’s most-desired (and perhaps imaginary) luxury: a day to themselves doing absolutely nothing. After that happy sunrise, though, come glimpses of a darkness more ominous.
With “Hide. Seek.” (even the brittle punctuation of the title is foreboding), McGrane’s quiet, almost ghostly vocal drops lyrical snippets suggesting lousy options (“Pick your poison”), fragile secrets (“Spill your story/spring a leak”) and violence, either threatened or overt — or both (“Swinging fists and open hands/and always keeping score”). The orchestra’s quiet accompaniment still swings, which makes the veiled story even more haunting.
One of the best songs is the layered “Overtones,” the tale of a woman who’s “standing on the corner/with her raincoat and a case” and a man who’s “waiting for the bell/unaware he’s missed the race.” Frelings’s mournful guitar and vocal harmonies, Dahlquist’s funeral trombone, and McGrane’s regretful torch touches (the inverse of her typical sunniness) makes the whole idea of Victor and Penny much more complex.
The song “Electricity” emphasizes that electricity is an event, not a thing, and for this event, Victor and Penny didn’t just up the amperage; they stripped bare several wires and then poked at them. Those decisions ultimately give them more room to be themselves, with uncertainty and regret as new ingredients in the mix. That’s a brave move for any band.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.