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LA Cowboy: The Big Pitch
by George Graham
(Reconcile Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/10/2021)
Retro music has been proliferating, taking various forms, from revival of 1960s British-invasion pop, to 1970s funk influence, to 1980s synthesizer pop. There are also artists who are reaching back further for their influence. Pokey LaFarge is a good example with his music borrowing from the 1920s at times, and 1950s at others. This week, we have an interesting artist who draws on big-band influenced swing and jazz, and adds some blues and a singer-songwriter’s lyrical approach. It’s by LA Cowboy, who is J. Frederick Millea, and his new album is called The Big Pitch.
LA Cowboy is obviously based in the southern California metropolis, and many of his songs use the city as a backdrop. The Big Pitch is his ninth album. On it, he is joined by essentially a small big band with six horns for several of the tracks, with Millea doing all the arrangements. But it’s not really a traditional jazz style big band, the songs tend to be rock influenced, and the lyrics are often vignettes and little story songs. In fact, in the album’s liner notes, Millea invites the listener to read through the lyrics before listening to the music, and consider how the musical backing changes the context of the words. The compositions are generally variations on love songs – love gained and love lost, and then missing the love. They are set in a usually jaunty big band context that can make the make even the sad lyrics sound upbeat. With this kind of music, there is a danger of sounding like a Las Vegas show, but the compositions and arrangements here are generally tasteful, and though the horns are quite prominent, they generally enhance, rather rather than distract from the songs.
The basic rhythm section includes Sam Hirsch on piano, Fino Roberto on guitar, Johnny Hutton on acoustic bass, and Claudius Kennberger on drums. Millea writes in his liner note that almost all the songs were recorded in one or two takes with the band members essentially reading their parts cold in the studio. The album does have a live-in-the-studio feel.
Opening is a song called Stories to Tell, which epitomizes the upbeat big band sound, while the lyrics telling the story of things going well except for one’s main squeeze not being there anymore. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album for both the big band sound and the clever lyrics is Forget About Her, about meeting someone very desirable, but still not being able to get over losing one’s ex. <<>>
Another interesting sort of a story song is Flyover Land about being a bi-coastal hipster, who finds himself in the being stuck in the part of the country he used to fly over. <<>>
Los Angeles becomes the focus of the song Angel in L.A. with Tinseltown being the backdrop for hustling to make it both show business and in romance. <<>>
A similar storyline is the basis for the title track The Big Pitch about looking at love as being like selling a script to a movie producer. <<>>
About the only track that doesn’t work as well musically is called Love Songs which sounds a bit clumsy and with the horn arrangement overdone. <<>>
The album ends with what could be a country song Why Do I? The horns take a break on this track about trying to make up after a breakup. <<>>
J. Frederick Millea, a/k/a LA Cowboy has created an enjoyable record that combines sometimes witty lyrics with big-band style arrangements that swing but also have some rock influence. This fairly short 34-minute, 8-song album is well done with great playing and for the most part, the big arrangements adding spice to the songs which themselves are worthwhile musically and lyrically.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The large arrangements are well-recorded with a clean, warm sound. The vocals are similarly well-treated, evoking the style of Frank Sinatra big band recordings, but with a less grand-scale quality.
Last year, we reviewed a Loudon Wainwright album that evoked styles from the 1920s and 30s. LA Cowboy’s The Big Pitch is another example of having fun with pre-rock retro and doing it well.
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