An old upright piano, a snarling electric bass, Phil Spector-ized booming drums and seductive Cool School vocals get into a punk-blues brawl at the studio of Grammy-winning Black Keys producer Mark Neill. On their head-spinning new album, The Claudettes summon vaudeville blues, ’60s soul and Cramps-like psychobilly. Behold Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!, the band’s third full-length for Yellow Dog Records and first to feature their touring lineup of piano, drums, “Bass VI” guitar and three singers.
Pianist/songwriter Johnny Iguana airs grievances about the numbing and divisive effects of an Internet-dominated world all across these songs. “Nobody knows how to talk to each other these days,” begins the song “Give It All Up for Good,” while “Bill Played Saxophone” follows American political nemeses through periods of smoldering bitterness and revenge fantasies. “Death and Traffic” begs for stories of saved lives and heroism amidst the onslaught of bad news, then “Utterly Absurd” bemoans the age of the hair-trigger Google search: “Thought dies as transmission rise…‘fast and now’ killed ‘I know how.’” And need anything more be said about the prescience of “Naked on the Internet”?
Neill invited the Claudettes to his Georgia studio after being introduced to the band by Dave Cobb (Grammy-winning producer of Sturgill Simpson and Lake Street Dive). The Claudettes recorded at Soil of the South for ten days, taking advantage of Neill’s vast knowledge and collection of vintage equipment.
“Mark insisted that, no matter how loudly we crank amps live, we record at conversational level so he could turn his vintage preamps up and use his best old mics,” says band leader Johnny Iguana, who has recorded with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and a host of other blues giants along with his own punk-organ band oh my god. The result: a big, warm sound straight off the ’60s 45s that Mark spins between takes for inspiration.
The piano-guitar-drums core of each song was recorded in a single take, as were most vocals. Neill, who shuns the practice of building tracks in Pro Tools, had the band run through songs again and again until “THE” take arrived. Marxophones, mellotrons, rare fuzz pedals and an array of percussion instruments were broken out to finalize Neill’s vision for each track.
Here the Claudettes introduce the singer who’s been touring with the band for two years: Berit Ulseth. “Berit went to the New School in NY for jazz vocals, but she’s got a tone you can’t learn,” says Iguana. “Sometimes she reminds me of Carole King and her soulful ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ vocals…but she’s also got this Patsy Cline warmth and lushness to her voice.”
Ulseth urges a lackluster partner to set her free in “Don’t Stay With Me,” propelled by an insistent orchestral bass drum, then reveals the exquisite nuances of her voice on the transfixing ballad “Pull Closer to Me.” Bassist/guitarist Zach Verdoornyodels thealbum’s carnival-ready title cut and takes urgent solos on “Total Misfit” and the aforementioned “Naked on the Internet,” a song that sounds like the ’60s but looks to a future where our only lasting legacies are unwanted searchable ones.
What’s traditional on Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! are the blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll touchstones and the antique instruments and equipment used to document them. What’s new and indescribable are the punk-laced energy and sum total of these songs, musicians and producer Neill, who describes this album thusly: “Haunted cabaret…David Lynch movie music crossed with Allen Toussaint’s driving piano sound! And sort of like when you’re driving late at night in the South and two radio stations are coming in together and it’s perfect!…Like Otis Spann and Mark Sandman from Morphine sitting in with Keely Smith. I’m kind of riffing here but seriously nobody sounds like them…I love this new record, it’s crazy good.”
Their forthcoming March 23 release on Yellow Dog Records Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium was produced by Grammy winner Mark Neill (Black Keys). Pre-order the new Claudettes album now https://theclaudettes.bandcamp.com/album/dance-scandal-at-the-gymnasium