An album for those who reckon there’s just not enough singer-songwriters celebrating the French and Weimar cabaret era, the former Wailin’ Jennys member Annabelle Chvostek digs into her East European heritage alongside her Canadian background and marital Uruguayan influences for this gloriously ebullient sixth album ‘Strong of Pearls’. Co-produced, from Montevideo, by composer and multi-instrumentalist, Fernando Rosa who assembled an array of tango and classical musicians to evoke the days of 30s tango and jazz swing while, back home in Toronto, David Travers-Smith recruited members of the gypsy jazz scene alongside regular drummer Tony Spina. Added to all this, Chvostek drew on her time as artist-in-residence with the city’s Echo Women’s Choir to work on the vocal arrangements.
She raises the curtain, singing in both French and English on the frisky brushed snares flapper shuffle Je T’ai Vu Hier Soir (I Saw You Last Night), keeping the swing sizzling with the double bass, clarinet, mandolin and classical guitar feline slinkiness of the title track, not the Glenn Miller number but certainly evoking a similar vintage.
The first of the cabaret numbers arrives with the sexy tango shimmying Cannabin, sweeping across the dancefloor on a tide of parping and wailing horns, vocals scatting as the guitar and drums carry the momentum, finally breaking out into a jitterbug party that suggests everyone had been smoking the same.
Things slow down with Walls, a dramatic, dark ballad strummed on Spanish guitar, picking up pace and power as the orchestration swells and Chvostek unpacks her Piaf and Dietrich wardrobe, then it’s back to Français and the pre-war Parisian nightclubs for the jazzy guitar strum and vibes of D’etre Humaine with a Spanish acoustic solo you might think had resurrected Django himself. There’s more tango then with Come Back as she seduces some café accordion player to partner her across the floor, heading for an urgent bilingual Belleville Rendezvous with its shuffling rhythm string bass, clarinet and clopping coconut shells percussion.
Striking a Kurt Weil Weimar note, she turns Tom Waits’ Just Enough Bullets into a woozy tango with narcotic trombone and tuba as she purrs the sage cautionary advice that “You can never go hunting/With just a flintlock and a hound”, complete with its galloping mid-section.
Returning to her own material, Halfway Through is a slow Piaf-like confessional ballad, words of wisdom to her younger in a hurry self, reflecting on her personal and musical ambitions and journey. Before hitting the fairground to ride the carousel on the Tarot-referencing sway-along The Fool with its banjo, accordion and bandoneon channelling the wild impetuosity.
Returning to the 30s ballroom swing, the penultimate track, Firefly (You Just Love) with its horns and woodwind and Chvostek scatting is firmly in that Miller/Andrews Sisters good-time groove, ending up with the simple, delightful lullaby Baby, Baby, Baby that has her playing ukulele accompanied by cello, tuba, violin, glockenspiel and wine glasses. A glorious evocation of a faded but not forgotten era of dance and romance, played and performed to giddy perfection, like the houseplant that shares its name, this is truly succulent.