[WESTERN SWING AT DUSK] It's good to hear Pete Krebs' voice showcased again. The former Hazel singer-guitarist and current Stolen Sweets band leader had released a handful of fine headlining discs until 2002, when he left the singer-songwriter world for music instruction and regular gigs around Portland, playing gypsy jazz and other American folk musics on his lonesome or with his trio.
The Portland Playboys, an expanded version of that trio, play Western swing in the vein of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, generally regarded as forefathers of the genre. And while that explains the Portland quintet's name and many of its stylistic choices—skittering tempo, stand-up bass, twinkling slide-guitar work and Krebs' own barn-burning guitar solos—it doesn't fully explain the Portland Playboys' sound. As with Krebs' solo-ish releases, there's a darkness lingering just out of frame here. This is starlight swing, less sentimental than downright heartbroken—a feeling evoked by the song choices (from misty-eyed standards like "Walkin' the Floor Over You" and "Waltz Across Texas" to Krebs' original "Everybody's Tryin' to Be My Baby") and the occasional artfully employed reverb.
Don't get me wrong—everyone in this tight band is having an awful lot of fun on Early Sessions. That joy is most evident in the fine interplay on the disc's instrumental tracks, which include an up-tempo cover of jazz standard "Caravan" and the lovely "Cherokee." But try as Krebs might to sound party-ready in his singing—which is both markedly more forceful and more clearly enunciated than usual—the Oregon rain has soaked too deep into his soul for Krebs to pass as a Texan. Those unmistakable vocal cords lend the band, like all of Krebs' projects, a real sense of place that sets these Playboys apart from their forebears. It also explains why the saddest tune on the record, Charlie Feathers' haunting "Man in Love," is also the most striking. Sometimes you've just got to embrace the storm clouds that follow you around.