The Manhattan Transfer

The Spirit of St. Louis

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You always look for new things from the Manhattan Transfer, and after a couple of releases that weren't too innovative, followed by a three-year gap, suddenly they come out with a really peculiar-sounding, refreshingly weird observance of the Louis Armstrong centennial. It sounds as if they had spent those three years racking their brains trying to come up with a totally different studio sound that's neither nostalgic nor modern. Which is exactly what they've done; the sound is compressed to evoke that of an ancient 78 rpm disc but not any 78 you'll ever encounter, whether by Louis or anyone. You hear all kinds of odd things bumping around in the back like loose parts in a machine, strange electronic treatments of the voices, an accordion wailing through many of the tracks, Delta blues guitar, Cajun, and rock & roll, and even more modern styles (with members of k.d. lang's band and Los Lobos's Steve Berlin joining in). The A&R guys probably would have killed to make this CD an exercise in reverent nostalgia -- "Do You Know What It Means to Miss Orleans" is the closest thing to it -- but a track like "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" with its touch of hip-hop in the rhythm, electronically limited guitar, and strings doesn't sound nostalgic in the least. "Gone Fishin'" is an affectionate, extended Alan Paul/Tim Hauser takeoff on the easygoing rapport between Armstrong and Bing Crosby on their duet version, wisely leaving the funny topical references to the original. "Nothing Could Be Hotter Than That" has some trademark Cheryl Bentyne high-wire vocalese. And to end the album, a normally warm and cozy tune like "When You Wish Upon a Star" opens and closes with a spacy electronic arrangement, with harmonies that thankfully undercut the sweetness, transforming the tune. Louis Armstrong wouldn't have recognized this "tribute," but his younger self probably would have hailed the Transfer's renewed moxie and experimental spirit.

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