In swing you have to have the look, but Tonic delivers the goods as well. The cover of their first CD shows them perfectly attired in 1930s/'40s-style in a black-and-white photo, while the typeface is a deco-style pastel.
But this vocal quartet does more than just cover swing/lounge material. Their nine-piece backing band and a few guest musicians expertly play original swing orchestra arrangements, instead of imitating the usual Louis Jordan-style combo. They avoid obvious covers, opting instead for less commonly done numbers like Johnny Mercer and Jimmy VanHeusen's "I Thought About You" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy River."
Best of all, the originals written by members of the quartet stand equally with the covers, instead of being thinly veiled rip-offs of old swing tunes. An example is "I've Got Reservations," with the title being a play on words, and sophisticated lyrics that include: "Deciding on a pair of pants/May take a momentary glance/Conforming to a job's cup of tea/Committing may be fitting/For a zombie in a trance/But choosing where to aim the heart's/Implausible as modern art."
"Hepster's Jive" is derivative, but admittedly so, as a tribute to Cab Calloway. "Sammy Slick" is a wonderful takeoff on the private eye genre, with a spoken tough-guy introduction and a complete mystery story in one song.
Tonic describe itself as "Manhattan Transfer meets the Rat Pack ... with a little Louis Prima thrown in." With two male and two female vocalists, comparisions to Manhattan Transfer seem inevitable. But Tonic has only existed since 2003 and this is their first CD, so there is no telling if they will become as eclectic as the Transfer, which has been around for over three decades.
Their harmonies are as good as they come. On solos the men (Paul Langford and Steve Multer) do not quite reach the level of the women (Karen Multer and Jennifer Chada). But the men choose material, often humorous, that does not require as much vocal expertise.
You may remember the short-lived swing revival, led by groups like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. The movement featured excellent unsung bands (Bellevue Cadillac, for example), and many younger people who seemed more interested in their clothes than in their music.
The quartet and band of Tonic are obviously seasoned musicians. They may not bring back the style of swing on their own, but this group from Chicago (a town they expertly pay tribute to in their song "Straight for the Stars (via Lake Shore Drive)" should at least be far more successful than the Cubs.
by Dave Howell