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Diana Krall Brings Sexy Back In Time

Mark Seliger
Courtesy of the artist

When listening to Diana Krall's fun, smart new recording Glad Rag Doll, it's helpful to consider a question recently posed by Gyp Rosetti, the sensitive psychopath lending sparks to this season of HBO's Prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire. "What the f--- is life if it's not personal?" sputtered the Sicilian fireball, expressing some violent doubts about the sincerity of the show's slick boss, Nucky Thompson. He could have been talking about the small fuss surrounding the sultry piano tickler's new release, an album that takes her back to her own musical origins by snapping a sepia portrait of the birth of jazz.

Krall's marketing team is presenting Glad Rag Doll, a collaboration with producer and family friend T-Bone Burnett, as one of her most personal efforts. Songs were culled from her father's collection of 78 RPM discs and others she'd discovered in sheet music lying on her grandparents' piano bench. She's exploring the youthful fantasies she cultivated during late nights watching Carole Lombard movies on television: this dream of glamor is designed to free her from the one that's made her famous but also hemmed her in, which is more contemporary but also more dull, since it's founded in the idea that she makes sophisticated (read: not rock or pop) music. Eleven albums in, Krall is finally acknowledging her inarguable sex appeal through a cover shot that puts her in a modest version of America's eternally popular adult Halloween costume — a corset and stockings — and song selections that establish a mood of playfulness and heat. She had to go back to the dawn of popular music as we know it in order to do what Pink and Katy Perry do every day.

The quote from Krall's electronic press kit that's floating around has Burnett calling this "sex music," though what he said next — "this is swing music" — is equally important. Working with Burnett and the top-notch small band he's assembled, including guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jay Bellerose, Krall successfully evokes a time when people assumed that, if music was playing, they'd be dancing in pairs, not just sitting and listening. The swing is the thing that wakes up listeners to sensual pleasure and romantic possibility.

Glad Rag Doll doesn't only cull from the roaring '20s, but it does sustain a mood reliant on the tensions that make music from that moment so fascinating. This gets back to that central idea of "the personal." In the Jazz Age, recording techniques were changing to accommodate the use of microphones in the studio, and singers began transitioning from vaudeville theatrics to a more conversational style. This shift, along with an increasing frankness about sexuality following the upheavals caused by rapid urbanization and the First World War, led songwriters to adopt a tone that was often quite racy, but also intimate in other ways, and that's what Krall uncovers in this set.

In his excellent book on New York nightlife in this period, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret, Shane Vogel describes what happened between performers and audiences in the tiny clubs of uptown New York as a form of "public intimacy": a contingent but powerful connection that, as Vogel writers, "brought bodies, sounds, and histories together in ways that disorganized and reorganized desires, selves, time, and space." Artists were articulating ways of being that were new or had been hidden, and in the close quarters of Connie's Inn and the Cotton Club, they could create the mood that got their messages across. The same thing was happening in different ways through mass media: in movies, now suddenly made "small" by sound (to quote Gloria Swanson's famous line from Sunset Boulevard) and in a recording process that could catch nuances the older acoustical approach missed.

Early versions of the songs Krall covers on Glad Rag Doll, by flapper-era favorites like Libby Holman, Annette Hanshaw and Ruth Etting, feature performances with one satin-clad foot in broad theatrical performance and one in the newer, more introspective style. (It's a little strange that she picked songs mostly made famous by white singers; the repertoire of blues queens fits in so well with her project. Maybe her grandma's collection was short on Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith?) Krall benefits the most, actually, from emulating the broader strokes of these singers. There's a vivacity to her singing and piano playing that's welcome after so many years of mellower material.

The other major touchstone is Bing Crosby, who pioneered and popularized microphone-centered crooning. Der Bingle recorded three of the thirteen songs Krall approaches here; listening to his versions of "Here Lies Love" or the larky "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears," in which he matches the ease of Bix Biederbecke's cornet playing with the kind of gentle confidence that Krall's been pursuing throughout her career. "The essence of his art was an illusion of naturalness that fails if people notice it," Robert Christgau once wrote of Crosby; that's a pretty good description of what people who love Krall appreciate.

Krall steps forward into rhythm and blues with two of Glad Rag Doll's most beguiling cuts: a Tom Waits-y take on Doc Pomus's 1956 classic "Lonely Avenue," and "A Little Mixed Up," a 1961 Chess Records rarity cowritten and performed by Betty James. These songs are musically characteristic of the later dates when they were composed, but their lyrics bare the same emotional concerns that crooners and Gaiety Girls expressed. The modern romance that pop promoted during and after the 1920s reflected ideals of individual fulfillment and emotional independence that the nascent science of psychology made fashionably. Women's increased financial independence and mobility made them bolder in their pursuit of happiness, and that's something that obviously interests Krall and Burnett. The very idea that women could have "personal" concerns extending beyond home and family was still fairly radical in the early 20th century. The sexy sound Glad Rag Doll evokes is really the sound of women possessing themselves.

This project may, indeed, be personal for Krall; it's also well-timed to complement current trends. The Roaring decade tangos back into fashion every once in a while, and it's happening again, with Boardwalk Empire, Beck's sheet music project, and the lawn parties on New York's Governor's Island reviving interest in the era. I think the lure of the 1920s (really the whole period between the World Wars, but hey, fashionistas are rarely stickler historians) boils down to the fact that it's the first historical moment in which we recognize modernity. People have always thought of their time as the new time, whether they were rockin' in the Renaissance or venturing into outer space in the 1960s. The 1920s idea of what was fresh, however, had many parallels to our own. Diana Krall seems to get that, and that's what makes this vintage outing so right for right now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.