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The Puppini Sisters - Betcha Bottom Dollar Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    8
released:    2007
label:    Universal
reviewer:    Charles & Diane Michelle Andrews

ImageHere’s what the Puppini Sisters aren’t:
Italian. (Well, one of them was born in Bologna, but they’re all really British.)
Old hands at this old-style vocalizing. (Ages 18, 22, 22.)
Andrews Sisters clones. (Well … that’s the blatant vocal and physical reference and their reason for calling themselves sisters, with nods also to the sisters Boswell, McGuire, Lennon and Roche, but on this debut release only two of the 14 numbers are associated with that hugely popular harmony trio of the ‘30s-‘60s – the Andrews Sisters sold possibly 100 million records, and had 46 in the Top 10, more than Elvis or the Beatles – while the remaining dozen tunes flow from other ‘30s-‘50s influences like the Boswells, the Ink Spots, the Chordettes, Glenn Miller, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and Italian crooner Renato Carosone, whose goofy 1958 film performance of his “Tu Vuo Fa l'Americano” – a song included on this album – owes much to Chico Marx, through more recent decades ranging from Gloria Gaynor to Kate Bush, Blondie and the Smiths all the way to the Pussycat Dolls, whose cover last year of the Latin staple “Sway” becomes a joke, really unlistenable after you hear what the Puppinis do with it.)

The Puppini Sisters wannabe the Andrews Sisters time-warped into the 21st Century. What would Maxene, Patty and LaVerne do? Of course they’d still do signature tunes like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Shön,” but they’d have the urge to leaf through the modern songbook and feel out what would seem ripe for their tight vocal harmonies. (Odd note: the Puppinis pronounce “Shön” as it really should be in German – “shuhn” – which makes it not rhyme with “remain” and “explain,” etc., like when it’s usually mispronounced “shayn” – yet one time only, towards the end, they do pronounce it “shayn” … huh?)
Chances are they’d make some good to great choices and adaptations (the Puppinis did). Truth is, as enjoyable as Betcha Bottom Dollar is simply because we rarely hear this kind of harmonizing on the airwaves any more, and especially from such young ‘uns, they also made enough mediocre to bad choices to sour the stew a bit.

BBD is all covers. Oldies. Old oldies. As far to the end of the 20th Century as the Puppini Sisters could force themselves was the Smiths’ “Panic” from 1986, on the face of it a strange choice, and indeed not an attractive, appropriate adaptation. Two from the ‘70s, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” are also missteps, the latter particularly egregious. (Really – no one but Kate Bush should do Kate Bush. Peter Gabriel, maybe. Pat Benatar survived covering it on her 1980 album Crimes of Passion only because it was buried behind four hit singles. Check out Bush’s “WH” video of almost 30 years ago … creepy-weird.)

The exception of the “modern” stuff is Gloria Gaynor’s great “I Will Survive.” Grammy winner, for Best Disco Recording in 1979 – the one and only time that category was awarded. Chosen anthem of the French World Cup football team. Named by VH1 the numero uno Greatest Dance Song of All Time. Translated and recorded into 20 languages, including Arabic. (Heavy implications, there …) Covered by everyone from Diana Ross to Selena to Cake. Sung by “Tony Clifton” near the end of Man in the Moon. Now, that’s a song! And doesn’t it always come down to that? Great songs top every other consideration. Love Kate Bush or Morrissey if you must, but look elsewhere for adaptable classic material. The Puppini Sisters start “Survive” off so glacially you barely recognize it, then kick in a perfect finger-snappin’ Your Hit Parade beat, and even the short wordless, angelic interludes (with harp) towards the end work beautifully.

The rest of the covers are from the eras they most love and emulate. Do they do them better than the originals? Do they make them their own or improve upon them? In most cases, no. But at least they give us listenable, likable renditions.

Technically, these “sisters” are pretty fab. The Puppinis breathe as one, just like the untouchable Andrews, and to a lesser extent the Chordettes and all those sister acts mentioned. Their pitch, diction, unison singing and ability to blend are excellent. Their dips, slides and glissandos are reminiscent of a bygone era, and except for a few cuts they’ve managed to find that elusive balance between slick and soul, polish and passion. The structure of three-part harmony and singing “parts” doesn’t leave much room to cut loose and blow, so the soul and passion have to come from choice of material and execution. Number one homework suggestion, ladies: get a better sense of what can work for you.

The individual Puppinis (Marcella, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien)
seem to sing the same parts – alto, mezzo and soprano – in all numbers, and take turns on short solo breaks. Except for some sloppiness on the high notes of “Mr. Sandman,” the arrangements and instrumentation are superb – disregarding the bottles on “Wuthering Heights” and the saw on “Heart of Glass.” Especially nifty are the spare handclaps and foot stomps on “In the Mood” (coming off like a hoofer’s rendition, and reminding us of the wonderful French animated feature Triplets of Belleville, which the Puppini Sisters list among their influences), also the guitar solo on “Mr. Sandman” and the whistling on “Jeepers Creepers.”

(Charles’ note: I had to bring my wife Diane in as an expert on this, because she’s had an Andrews Sisters-styled vocal harmony trio called The Goils since 1983. As we googled and found more info and live performance videos on the Puppini Sisters, I couldn’t help but wonder if founder Marcella hadn’t caught their act at some point, somewhere in the world, because their repertoire of the older stuff, and even their arrangements, are so close to matching. But because of Marcella’s youth, and The Goils never having performed in England, it’s doubtful. And, face it, any fan of this style of music is going to gravitate towards the same great material. As fans, we’re thrilled this timeless style of singing is getting attention again through the young Puppinis. When they hit the Roxy on Sunset Strip this month, we just might be in the front row, flashing back to the Pointer Sisters show there in the ‘70s. Minnesota, Oakland, England – it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing, and these kitties are off to a good start.)

They have a new album scheduled out in the U.K. next month, and we can’t wait to hear what the sophomore effort sounds like. If nothing else, the Puppini Sisters are authentic and fun. Who doesn’t want some of that?

Good move, to stick to the kind of jazzy acoustic trio sounds that would fit most of the original renditions. The backing here supports, features and is not distracting to the vocals, which is what this is all about. Except for the bottles and saw. Arrangements could have sunk this ship, but instead float the boat.

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