Davina and the Vagabonds: Sugar Drops

Davina and the Vagabonds
Sugar Drops
(Red House)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

It’s easy to pigeonhole Davina Sowers and her band as retro enthusiasts who recreate the sounds of bawdy New Orleans brothels circa 1930’s and ‘40s. After all, with Dixieland styled horns (including clarinet) tooting, stand-up bass thumping and the music’s combination of swinging jazz and blues, that style has dominated the band’s three previous albums. 

But on release number four — the first recorded in a proper studio explains the press notes — Davina and her group push into a more diverse palette. While there is no getting around the frontwoman/singer’s peppy voice and jazzy timing that falls somewhere between Billie Holiday, Amy LaVere and Amy Winehouse and the music’s overall retro feel, somewhat similar to that of the Squirrel Nut Zippers (especially noticeable on “Devil Horns”), Sowers’ originals incorporate roots blues, country and American songbook era pop into their zippy sound.  

On “Mr. Big Talker,” Davina shifts into a waltz ballad complete with a string quartet to bring even more variety to the already eclectic program. The sweet, sing-along pop of “Little Miss Moonshine” seems like something Harry Nilsson would concoct and the noir club blues of the title track hearkens back to old Peggy Lee with more than a smattering of Winehouse. And with Ben Harper’s “Another Lonely Day,” Davina rescues the once-stripped down to slow acoustic guitar ballad released in 1995, shines it up, adds horns and her dominant personality to turn it into another, very different, more pop-oriented tune. On “Magic Kisses” Davina brings in a sassy Keely Smith vibe to the Louis Prima styled New Orleans stomper. And speaking of the Crescent City, Davina bangs the 88s like Dr. John on a cover of the Lee Dorsey hit “Holy Cow” (one of five extra tracks on the deluxe version, well worth springing a few more bucks for if only for that and a sexed-up take on Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”). 

Producer Garry West and Sowers’ husband Zack Lozier, who plays cornet, get the sonic mix just right, putting Davina’s malleable voice — that morphs from childlike to brassy within the same sentence — out front where it belongs. Although this is Davina’s first major/indie disc, the band has been around in one form or another since 2006 and the work they put in shows in every track. This music, as retro as it may be at times, feels fun, frisky and alive. No big concepts, no heavy lyrics, just Davina and her band swinging with spirited energy and terrific songs.