Hot Club of Cowtown's latest release is a jaw-dropping, head-shaking collection of stripped-down Western swing, cowboy jazz and saloon send-ups. Ghost Train expertly mines the two extremes of American folk music -- joy and despair -- while significantly improving upon the group's three prior recordings. What lifts Ghost Train above its predecessors is the feeling that the Club seems less concerned with re-creating old material and more intent on developing its own voice. And what a voice it is.
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Singer/violinist Elana Fremerman drives Ghost Train through her own clever songs, some of which seem destined to become classics. Her songs -- like the best of Gillian Welch's -- sound like age-old gems unearthed, tunes ripe with sparse but powerful images, rustic phrasing and sweet playing. "Forget Me Nots" is a neo-Tin Pan Alley style chestnut, the happiest kiss-off ever delivered. "Home" sounds like a lost track from the Paper Moon soundtrack marked by Fremerman's sighing singing and Joe Kerr's nimble piano tinkling. Fremerman's "Secret of Mine" is a giddy lover's two-stepper, while "Before You" is waltzing jazz. Excellent.
Elsewhere, guitarist Whit Smith steers the album through darker terrain in chilling tales that complement Fremerman's sunshine. "Sleep" is a haunting swing full of insomnia and stress. Smith's frail, fragmented singing adds tension and a sinister sound to the brooding "It Stops With Me," while his "Paradise With You" is an urgent, smooth-operator spiel.
Ghost Train is rounded out by a handful of covers that let the band reveal its heavy chops while honoring favorite compositions. Before the disc ends, the Hot Club pulls the emotional rug out from beneath listeners with a sparely instrumented "Chip Away the Stone." "Even a rock can crumble if you smack it night and day," Smith says, offering a weary but determined prediction aimed at a stony lover.
Smith and his Hot Club mates -- who appear with Asleep at the Wheel, August 23 and 24 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities -- are just as likely to chip away at a fan's defenses. It's difficult to resist the pull of these exceptional Western sounds.