Like its title suggested, the last album from Madison, Wis. jazz/jump blues/swing quartet Madison Red & The Band That Time Forgot, Film Noir Songbook, Vol. 1 (2015), featured sophisticated jazzy pop gems and standards associated with the film noir era, like Casablanca's immortal "As Time Goes By," and "He's Funny That Way," which was sung by Cecil Kellaway's Nick in The Postman Always Rings Twice as "She's Funny That Way" in reference to his less-than-devoted wife (unforgettably played by Lana Turner).
The album followed the group's live debut disc Proletarian Swing and studio album followup Profoundly Blue—all three focusing on cover tunes. New album 21st Century Blues and Ballads, however, is its first of totally original material, while still centering on the last century's jazz and blues forms that jibe with the preceding album titles.
"We recorded the entire record in our one-room practice space in the basement of the old Gallagher Tent & Awning Company building," says guitarist/songwriter Tom Flinn, identifying the century-old downtown Madison landmark.
"Bassist [and 21st Century Blues and Ballads producer] Ben Johnson and I go direct into the board with drummer Matt Krueger partitioned off in the back of the room and Megan Levy singing outside the door in what we call 'the airlock.' We recorded all the songs live except for most of the solos, to preserve as much spontaneity as we could."
Vocalist/keyboardist Levy, who also co-wrote many of the songs, is Flinn's daughter. She inherited both her father's love of cinema (he ran film societies at the University of Wisconsin and wrote for Madison’s scholarly Velvet Light Trap film magazine, with one of his early 1970s articles, “Three Faces of Film Noir,” having been reprinted in several anthologies) and music.
New album track "Reefer Dan" relates to both, and was originally performed in Flinn's ‘70s rock band Blue Light. The eight-bar blues ballad was inspired by Lloyd Price's version of 'Stagolee,' says Flinn, and ranks among the "precious few evenhanded depictions of pot dealers in contemporary culture--a major contrast with the sympathetic, often ultra-romantic treatment of alcohol bootleggers in 20th century novels like The Great Gatsby and movies like The Roaring Twenties and Live By Night."
Likewise, "Jocko's Rocketship" is "a kind of 'documentary in sound' that tells the story of the notorious Madison 'coke bar' that operated from the mid-'70s until 1999 in spite of the fact that a large population knew exactly what was going on there—and that prominent Madisonians often frequented the premises. It has great fidelity to the truth and a considerable level of detail gleaned from in-depth news stories from the time, which I kept thinking would be great material for a tune someday after the principals were long gone."
"Red Wind," meanwhile, is noteworthy in that Flinn sings on it, and that it's "a very personal blues" written back in the '90s when he was in Los Angeles seeking a "vulture capitalist" to acquire a company that he and other local musicias worked for—only to find before even getting on the plane that it had already been sold to its biggest competitor.
"Even reading Raymond Chandler and watching L.A.'s tabloid TV couldn't improve my mood," says Flinn, "but they did provide inspiration: When I went out walking at night on Wilshire Boulevard in the midst of a Santa Anna wind event, the song came together as a series of vignettes about people--drawn from sources both tabloid and literary--at the end of their tethers struggling with an environment that had turned startlingly oppressive."
Reaching back to his film background, Flinn invokes the Danish directors of the stripped-down, story-driven, Dogme 95 group.
"Given our limited recording resources, we have chosen, like the Dogme 95 directors, to eschew special effects in favor of concentrating on narrative," says Flinn, using "Jocko's Rocketship" as an example. Of the album as a whole, he adds, "This quirky little record contains more eight-bar blues, probably, than any disc in history, and I think our austere approach to recording yields some unexpected dividends. For instance, I love my guitar tone. While we have recorded like this before with the guitar going directly to the board, in the past we always re-amped the signal by running it through my amp. But this time we had a new super-clean interface and I just kept the straight unadorned sound of my 1950 single-pickup [Gibson] ES-175, a photo of which gets a prominent position [in the clear plastic CD tray] under the disc."
Otherwise, Flinn is particularly pleased with the way that Levy's keyboard and his guitar rhythm parts are meshed throughout the album.
"Our model was the great Stax band—even though there is a huge difference between our predominantly shuffle grooves and their incomparable funky stuff," he says, calling 21st Century Blues and Ballads "our version of Americana music [but] with much more of a blues and jazz influence than the genre in general."
"But then I don’t really want to sound like anybody else anyway," Flinn adds, and with other album tracks like "Nobody Pays Retail Anymore" (an eight-bar blues featuring a beginning and ending borrowed from the Duke Ellington Orchestra combined with a lament about fiscal and romantic fates in the Internet era), and "Oughta Be a Law" (a 12-bar ditty titled after a 1920 newspaper cartoon in The Milwaukee Journal), Madison Red & The Band That Time Forgot really doesn't.