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Dirty Little Secret

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Album Review

There was a seven year gap between Dirty Little Secret, Katharine Whalen's sophomore release, and her debut. Perhaps not surprisingly then, the two albums are worlds apart stylistically with the only constant being the singer's retro vocals. She has abandoned the smoky, Billie Holiday style that was a logical extension of her work with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, for a lounge/spy music/'60s avant-pop that suits her just as well and arguably better. Although she gets top billing on the front cover, the success of the album should go equally to David Sale (ex-Camus). He writes or co-writes the songs, plays every instrument, engineered all but two tracks, and is clearly the driving force behind the project. Whalen is in fine voice, but it's the production that shares and often dominates the spotlight. These heavily overdubbed songs exude a chilly, frisky, occasionally dreamy go-go quality, somewhere between trip-hop, Vegas jazz, and Austin Powers. The brassy bongo-driven attack of the opening, "The Funnest Game," makes it sound like it came off the soundtrack of a Sean Connery era James Bond flick. Instruments fade in and out during tunes and the programmed drums bring a contemporary feel, even as a song such as "Meet Me by the Fire" recalls girl group aesthetics. Just when you think you've got the album figured out, it shifts direction, eluding your grasp but beckoning you back for another spin. "The Garden" is built on tropical percussion, wandering trumpet, and staccato keyboards as Whalen double-tracks vocals in a bizarre but sexy moan. "Want You Back" imagines a Peggy Lee, Herb Alpert, and John Barry mash-up and the techno beat, mariachi trumpets, and '60s drama of "In the Night" is both winsome and vivid. Dirty Little Secret often seems like the soundtrack to some imaginary '60s B-movie, a bit schlocky and loungy but ultimately cool. It doesn't all work because sometimes these songs take a few too many detours, but it sounds like little else and scores on originality even when Whalen and Sale juggle a few too many creative balls.


Born: North Carolina

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s

On Katharine Whalen's Jazz Squad, the Squirrel Nut Zippers vocalist/banjo player Katharine Whalen brings her lovely, quirky singing style to a collection of standards like "My Old Flame," "That Old Feeling," and "My Baby Just Cares for Me." In much the same way that the Zippers treat hot jazz as a living, breathing art form open to modern interpretation, Whalen and her Jazz Squad -- which includes fellow Zipper and husband Jim Mathus -- bring more personality than technique to this collection. Fans...
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Dirty Little Secret, Katharine Whalen
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