Ever wondered what a mutant race of Puppini Sisters would sound like? Taking traditional close harmony vocal arrangements and fusing them with vaudeville excitement, The Debutante Hour don’t just sing and dance in the retro fashion that has become so revered of late – they are a presentation, an embodiment of performance, a characteristic that brings their music to life. A marvellous troupe of glamorous vagabonds, this Brooklyn-based trio refreshingly don’t take themselves too seriously, a fact which only highlights their talent and offers a splash of colour to a sometimes grey and miserable musical scene.
Most tracks on The Birth & Death Of Meaning feature an accordion rumpus courtesy of an alternating Susan Hwang and Maria Sonevytsky, with cello accompaniment from Mia Pixley. And if their surnames suggest a multicultural influence, this is embraced delightedly throughout. The subject matter is comedic yet often smart, including the irrepressibly childish ‘Zombies Are Zen’ which focuses on the undead’s appetite for guts. For as much as The Debutante Hour have an obvious penchant for absurdity, a closer listen reveals three women actually trying to make sense of their world through a dark humour. Either an attempt at controversy or merely just what came to mind during the songwriting process, the jazz-inspired ‘Devil Song’ cleverly considers the humdrum of daily life with slight religious undertones. “I want to meet the devil / I’ve got a feeling we’re much the same / parents that never understood us,” they cry, before launching into a trumpet-fuelled, high-kicking kitsch that convinces us that they are joking all along. Perhaps.
The same wry approach to lyrical content is seen in ‘Organizing My Planner For Next Week’, which betrays its cheerful outlook with the deeper subject of being different to one’s family. Sometimes reminiscent of antifolk for its subtly subversive don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, this is no better displayed than through the lighthearted look at suffering of ‘Sometimes I Wonder About The Creator Of The Universe’. Reflecting with slight crassness about “Some place where you need / a rubber vagina for lonesomeness,” the women’s frankness is a tonic in what might otherwise be seen purely as parodies of the country/blues canon.
The two best tracks on the album are those not necessarily less playful in nature but more finely honed examples of their work. Both love songs in the unconventional sense, we begin with ‘For Myself’, which discusses never wanting the moon or the sea for oneself because of all the problems with dead fish and such, yet reveals a more obvious vulnerability. “But I want you for myself,” Sonevytsky states cutely over pseudo-dramatic strings and piano. We still can’t take quite it seriously yet nothing here detracts from her sincerity, and all remains rather beautiful. In contrast, ‘Croak, Hiss & Splutter’ probably deserves a reward for its shindig tribute to a relationship’s tribulations, all in the manner that a cheeky trumpet personifies, not quite daring to expose its true feelings by using the most upbeat of formulas.
It’s with this in mind that we can confidently say that it’s the album’s finale that really sums up the philosophy of The Birth & Death Of Meaning. As much as fourteen tracks of sometimes-silly cabaret might be a bit much for some listeners, ‘Be Yourself’ talks of the joy of being an individual and the acceptance that comes with it. For all the analysis of what The Debutante Hour are and are not, their message can’t help but charm even the most cynical of music fans.
[Self-released; April 1, 2010]