I'm a sucker for this sort of thing: The Guardian asked 49 rock stars, producers, intelligentsia etc. to offer up their obscure gems -- those CDs they can toss on the stereo that invariably prompts people to say, "What IS this?" and then write down the name and head out to the record store. It's the print version of that scene from "High Fidelity" where they play The Beta Band and count the seconds before customers start buying the CD. (Hey, I wonder how they'll do that scene in the new Broadway musical version of the movie?) You'll read about everything from Shuggie Otis and The Electric Prunes and if you're like me, you'll immediately write down a few titles that intrigue you and head out to the record store. Of course, I do suffer from some sort of artistic inferiority complex: I hate it when people reference some brilliant, acclaimed novel as if everybody has read it or a classic film that everyone presumably has seen or a terrific album that of course everyone owns (if they're cool); I hate it, that is, when I haven't seen, read or listened to it and immediately run out and do so because I don't want anyone else to know about some gem when I don't.
Best of all, the Guardian has a contest urging you to submit your own obscure gem for consideration. Naturally, I couldn't resist and the first CD to spring to mind was "It's The Talk Of The Town and Other Sad Songs" by Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
I don't know why or how I stumbled across this obscure gem -- was it the eye-catching album cover that used a pulp fiction cover (complete with a seen-it-all dame lugging groceries home)? Whatever the reason, I bought this collection and fell in love with these versions of standards from the Twenties to the Forties (including "I Cover The Waterfront," "In Other Words, We're Through," and "Hummin' To Myself" long before I figured out where it had come from.
The opener -- "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" is an instrumental with Roland Brunt on tenor sax delivering a brashly straightforward melody that stops people in their tracks every time. It's followed by tunes like "Detour Ahead" delivered in hard-to-place accents that catch your ear with their slightly off deliveries and rhythmic choices -- who the hell is singing and where are they from? I didn't know, but this oddball curio grew and grew on me until I loved it. To add to the tantilizing mystery, there were hints in the very brief liner notes that several other albums existed by this group. But I could never track them down.
Finally, years later they put out a cheap boxed set with all three albums by the Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (the other two don't measure up, but are still fine) along with liner notes that explained its origin. Apparently, the Broken Dreams Orchestra was founded by Gert-Jan Blom in 1983 (formerly with De Snackbarfavorieten, De IJsbrekers and Big Bamboo, we're conveniently informed). It held an annual festival in Amsterdam where apparently a group of hep-cat swingers dressed up in period clothing and swung these tunes. Many of them don't speak English, so a number of these tunes are being sung phonetically or at least patterned heavily on earlier versions.
That explains much of this album's odd appeal: it's classic Tin Pan Alley from the early part of the US century that crossed over to Amsterdam, heard and loved and celebrated many years later and then sent back to us in refracted form, filled with strange, wonderfully off pronunciations but still somehow cutting to the heart of the matter. "It's the TALK...of the town." Until you hear that line uttered with despair in a thick accent that is filled with longing and regret in a voice that yearns to tell you how much it is hurting but can barely get the words out, well you haven't really heard that song. The oddly jaunty "You Broke The Only Heart That Ever Loved You" works for opposite reasons: is the singer blithely unaware of what the song is about, determined to overcome his sadness or pretending to be happy when in fact his heart is broken? And "I Cover The Waterfront" sounds exactly like it should, if it were being performed by Marlene Dietrich in a bombed out German cabaret during the war.
This is such a unique and strange little album that it's no surprise they couldn't catch lightning in a bottle with their two subsequent releases. I'm also pleased they seemed to have called it a day --though for all I know the festival is still an annual event. Though I doubt it. Nostalgia, reverence for great songs, the lovingly distorted image of America during the Great Depression, the sheer joy of dressing up in costumes and singing with a big band. The French helped us see our Westerns and gangster movies in a new light. And these kids from Amsterdam deliver up these songs with an innocent air of discovery that puts the "hip," ironic and faux-zoot suit swingers of the early Nineties to shame. Maybe that's what makes this album so special: it's the sound of people falling in love with a music and an era that has already faded away long, long ago. It's the ultimate in unrequited love.