Review: Kitty, Daisy & Lewis’ “Smoking in Heaven”

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When listening to many of today's recent releases (Feist, Ryan Adams, The Decemberists, Mumford and Sons), one might think that the computer chip was never invented. In fact, if you didn't have your iPod plugged in, you might think electricity hadn't been discovered either. 

In this age of hi-tech everything, many artists may be using the computer for marketing and distributing their product, but they're shunning it while recording and performing. The digital backlash is apparent stylistically and technologically.

Not only are musicians playing vintage instruments or singing harmony vocals while huddled around single microphones, they're playing styles that originated sometime in the early 20th century. Who would have thought that, on Eddie Vedder's first solo outing, the Pearl Jam frontman would be singing a duet with Chan Marshall on "Tonight You Belong to Me," accompanied only by the strumming of Vedder's ukulele?

Like the British invasion of the 1960s, many of today's U.K. and Irish bands are being influenced by American roots music. Adele's 21, this year's No. 1-selling album, has obvious nods to Aretha Franklin and Atlantic Records R&B from the '60s. The success of Welsh singer Duffy and the late Amy Winehouse definitely helped push the retro sound into the mainstream. This month, Irish singer Imelda May released an outstanding neo-rockabilly album called Mayhem. Equally impressive is the newly released sophomore effort by the London-based trio Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, entitled Smoking in Heaven (Sunday Best Recordings Limited).

The group is comprised of siblings Kitty, Daisy & Lewis Durham who are firmly rooted in the music that was passed down to them by family and friends. They play everything from piano, guitars, harmonica and drums to accordions, xylophones, lap steels and banjos. All of the songs on the new album were self-penned and, while revisiting the bluesy roots sound of their self titled debut, they push the envelope beyond R&B, blues and swing with a couple of ska-flavored originals featuring legendary Jamaican trumpeter Eddie "Tan Tan" Thorton.

Like their highly acclaimed first album, the production and recording was done in Lewis' home studio, comprised of eight-track tape machines and RCA ribbon microphones from a bygone era. The only liner notes on the CD sleeve list the technical specifications of the recording, reassuring audiophiles that no computer was used during the recording process. The band has even pressed limited edition 45 and 78 rpm vinyl singles using their own equipment at their father's mastering studio.

The sparsely arranged songs have a loose, live-in-the-studio, no-bells-and-whistles ethos. The opening track, "Tomorrow," kicks off the record with a sloppy, in-your-face drum fill, followed by Tan Tan's trumpet blast. Daisy's "I'm Going Back" is reminiscent of a T-Bone Walker recording, while "Paan Man Boogie" sounds like a classic Pinetop Perkins piano romp.

The final title track is an eight-and-a-half minute, two chord blues jam that could have been recorded in the 1950s at Chicago's Chess studio with Kitty wailing on the harmonica and great blues riffs from Lewis's guitar.

Smoking in Heaven sounds great, sonically and in terms of performance. While the material and the approach may be borrowed from another time, the music sounds as vital and honest as ever.

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