CD Review: DC Fontana – La Contessa

Some years ago – long before it was available on DVD – I got a dub of an obscure television special. Done toward the tail-end of their time in the pop spotlight, the Monkees’ special titled 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee fascinated me. And with all due respect to the Monkees themselves, the most jawdropping quality of the entire program was, for me, the presence of Julie Driscoll. Exuding icy cool, she also sang the hell out of whatever she put her pipes to. Presented with the challenge of being backed by the aggressive organ work of Brian Auger, most vocalists would have wilted under the pressure; they simply wouldn’t have the goods to be up to the task. But Julie Driscoll brought finesse and power to bear. Hers was a unique talent in those days.

Ever since, few have measured up to her work. To be fair, few have tried. But when I first heard “Remember Me” by DC Fontana (included on the second of Shindig Magazine‘s peerless compilations, as well as on this set), I sensed that we might – finally – have an act worth of being mentioned in the same breath as Brian Auger’s Trinity featuring Julie Driscoll.

Seems I’m not the only one who thinks so. Prominently featured in the liner notes of DC Fontana’s second full-length La Contessa is this message: “This is a band full of verve, enthusiasm and sincerity. It’s like turning back the clock in waves of familiarities but with the freshness of the contemporary, combining vibrant horn arrangements & dynamic vocals. Add to this a watertight rhythm section & you have one classy, stimulating ensemble. All musics are essential to humanity. Artistic integrity should be honoured & treasured.” The note is signed by none other than…Julie (Driscoll) & Keith Tippett.

Good enough for me. And they leave me with little to say. La Contessa is a punchy album that swings. Sure, it’s retro, but with enough modern sheen to make it something much more than a stylistic excursion. Hints of slinky-cool acts like Air and Zero 7 are mixed smoothly with a hip and happening soul vibe such as what you’d find on a New Mastersounds album. Fuzz guitars and combo organs blend surprisingly well with beefy horn charts and jazzy electric piano figures. Hints of Ennio Morricone, Herb Alpert and John Barry abound, but the music always rocks.

The fact that the lion’s share of the tracks on La Contessa are sung in Italian or French doesn’t diminish the enjoyment a bit. Stellar guest vocalist Kicca Andriollo (an occasional vocal ringer for Eartha Kitt) is worked seamlessly into the mix, and the group’s main singer Karla Milton doesn’t seem to mind. Arrangements and concept allow plenty of room for both to shine. And the players are showcased to amazing effect, as well. This is one of those albums that begs to be turned up loud.

Pointing out highlights is an exercise in futility; the fourteen songs on La Contessa are varied yet consistent; each one stands on its own, but the effect of listening to the album as a whole is greater even than the sum of the parts. The horns will knock you back in your chair, the drum fills will snap you to rapt attention, and the cinematic tones of songs like “Les Fantômes du Père Lachaise” (with a spoken poem in French!) will make you want to see the motion picture that features the track. (There isn’t one.) And Rachel Ashton‘s operatic backing vocals on  “Se Telefonando” may call to mind The Polyphonic Spree.

A pleasing mix of style and substance, La Contessa has quickly earned a place as contender for my favorite album of 2011.