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Still jazzed after all these years: 8-1/2 Souvenirs issues Charlie Sexton-produced album

The band 8-1/2 Souvenirs has a new album out for the first time in more than two decades.

If you lived in Austin in the 1990s, it’s likely you were at least somewhat familiar with 8½ Souvenirs, which arose shortly after guitarist and songwriter Olivier Giraud moved to Austin from France in the late 1980s. Interested in a cosmopolitan approach to the swing-jazz revival that was happening across the nation at the time, Giraud recruited singer Kathy Kiser and several other accomplished local players for a band he’d named after a Federico Fellini film (“8½”) and a Django Reinhardt song (“Souvenirs”).

Their music was, in the group's own words, “a multilingual musical confluence of European café society, hot club, circus swing, and jazz with English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese songs.” They caught lightning in a bottle with a Continental Club residency, but the band’s heyday was finite, in part because Kiser got married and moved to Florida to raise a family. The group continued for a few years with singers Julianna Sheffield and Chrysta Bell, releasing a couple of albums on indie and major labels before calling it quits in 2001.

Kiser, now Kathy Benayoun, eventually returned to town, and around a decade ago, she started talking with Giraud, bassist Todd Wulfmeyer and keyboardist Glover Gill about reconvening the group. Fate intervened when Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer opened C-Boy’s Heart & Soul in 2014. Soon, 8½ Souvenirs had a Tuesday happy-hour residency there, drawing a regular crowd of appreciative fans that often included local guitar great Charlie Sexton.

More:Our interview with Charlie Sexton, Austin music's MVP

Not long after Sexton produced an album for Gill, who left the group in 2018 after developing debilitating tendon issues, Sexton expressed interest in doing an album with 8½ Souvenirs, as well. “I've known Charlie a long time, and working with him was a really exciting prospect,” Giraud said.

“At first I was wondering why we would go into the studio, since we only had maybe three or four new songs,” he continued. “And then I realized that there were a bunch of (older) songs that we’d never actually put on record.”

Giraud came to see the project as “archiving” the two decades that had passed since the band had last made an album. “It was kind of like a closure to the 20 years that had passed but had not been yet recorded,” he said.

The result, “At the Movies,” was recorded at Church House studios over a period of several months, with Giraud, Benayoun and Wulfmeyer joined by drummer Robb Kidd and recent addition Dan Walton on piano, accordion and B3 organ. The band had planned to celebrate its release at its C-Boy’s residency this week, but Austin’s return to Stage 5 COVID-19 guidelines amid the omicron surge intervened. They’ll celebrate whenever they decide to resume the residency (the tentative date is Feb. 15); Giraud said there’s a possibility they might also do a virtual release event.

A highlight of “At the Movies” is “Le Way,” a French-language translation of Austin power-pop band Fastball’s 1998 hit “The Way.” Fastball co-founder Tony Scalzo, who wrote the song, explained in a recent social media post that he’d suggested to Benayoun that 8½ Souvenirs cover the song and was delighted when they took him up on it.

Giraud “worked out the lyrics to not only fit the original vibe of the song, but tell the story in a new and refreshing way,” he wrote. “I had originally agreed to join them in the studio, but COVID made that impossible. I watched and waited from afar as the band went to work with Charlie and soon, I had a mix to listen to. I think this is the best cover of the song I’ve yet to hear.”

Related:Fastball celebrates 20th anniversary of career-making album

While “At the Movies” may punctuate the period that saw 8½ Souvenirs fade and then rise again, Giraud said he’s very much looking forward to making another album soon with material he’s written recently. Press materials accompanying “At the Movies” noted that the band members asked themselves the question, "If we only get to make one more record, what do we want people to hear?” — but now it appears there will be more to come.

“I have been writing songs, and I’m really looking forward to arranging and recording them with the band as it is now,” Giraud said. “It’s hard to not look forward to the new things when you’re surrounded with people you like working with. So this next one is going be what we have been doing since we got back together.”

Here’s 8½ Souvenirs’ French-language version of “Le Way”:

Whitmore Sisters, “Ghost Stories”

“In our family you sing, you play an instrument, and fly.” That’s Eleanor Whitmore, explaining that she and younger sister Bonnie followed their parents’ lead not only in becoming musicians, but in getting pilot licenses. That illuminates the opening track, “Learn to Fly” — but much of “Ghost Stories” is grounded in deeper themes, particularly the loss of several close friends in recent years.

“The Ballad of Sissy and Porter” revisits tall tales that Austin musician Chris Porter, who died in a 2016 bus crash on tour, used to tell Bonnie when they were dating. Another of Bonnie’s former beaus, the late Justin Townes Earle, is the subject of the elegiac closer “Greek Tragedy.”

Related:Bonnie Whitmore rises to the fore on ‘Last Will and Testament’

Less specific but equally poignant is “Friends We Leave Behind,” which grieves other recently departed friends. The title track takes a broader view, addressing the “collective trauma due to the senseless deaths that occur daily in the U.S. because of inequality,” the sisters write in press materials accompanying the 11-song record.

Sisters Bonnie and Eleanor Whitmore have a new album titled "Ghost Stories."

Musically, “Ghost Stories” exceeds the high bar these two women have set on their respective projects apart. Bonnie, an Austin fixture for years with a long-running Continental Gallery residency, is one of Austin’s best bassists, singers and songwriters. Violinist Eleanor, who lived in Austin for several years before relocating to Los Angeles in 2016, has earned widespread acclaim for her work in Steve Earle’s band and the duo records she’s made with her husband Chris Masterson — who produced and played guitar on “Ghost Stories.” There was too much talent here for the sisters’ first album together to less than great, but the end result is even better than expected.

Related:Our 2014 interview with the Mastersons

Release date: Jan. 21 on Red House Records. Performing Jan. 19 at Guero's for Sun Radio's "Texas Radio Live." Here’s the video for “Learn to Fly”:

Jamestown Revival, “Young Man”

Picking up where they left off with 2020’s pastoral EP “A Field Guide to Loneliness,” songwriters Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance gravitated toward an indie-folk feel for this 10-song release recorded at Fort Worth’s renowned studio Nile City Sound.

They enlisted fellow Austin-based Americana artist Robert Ellis to produce, and he kept the arrangements focused on the pair’s vocal harmonies, with subtle backing from acoustic guitars, fiddle and pedal steel, forgoing electric guitars entirely.

Release show: Jan. 14 at Gruene Hall. Here’s a recent live video of the title track:

Kydd Jones, "Onyx D'Or (No More Waiting)"

A 2018 alum of our Austin360 Artist of the Month series, native Austinite Jones has been championed by Gary Clark Jr., who included Jones in his 2019 Austin City Limits Music Festival appearance, as well as in last year’s Clark-curated Blues on the Green revue. This seven-song set showcases his subtly entrancing brand of hip-hop, with elements of electronica providing a stylized vocal sheen that contrasts against the heavy message of songs such as “Goblin,” which references the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Kydd Jones' new album is titled "Onyx D'Or (No More Waiting)."

An expanded Bandcamp version of the album contains an additional 11 tracks, including one that features rising local star Jackie Venson. Jones also is active in Austin’s comedy scene, with a Jan. 20 date set for his “Kydd’s Comedy Jam” at Antone’s.

Released: Jan. 7. Here’s the track “Jet Seats,” featuring Quin NFN:

Bruce Hughes, "Late Night Polaroids"

Bassist for a variety of Austin acts across four decades — from Poi Dog Pondering to Bob Schneider to the Resentments — Hughes occasionally puts out records of his own that reveal a more personalized creative identity. The sound is admirably hard to pin down: Hughes draws from his innate knack for rhythmic grooves, a smooth tenor voice well-suited to folk-pop, and lyrics that tend toward an upbeat outlook on the world.

The dozen songs on “Late Night Polaroids” are “poppier, deeper, and closer to my heart than anything I’ve put out yet,” Hughes suggests in press materials accompanying the album. The supporting cast includes A-list local drummer JJ Johnson as well as his former Poi Dog mate Frank Orrall.

Release date: Jan. 21. Here’s the lyric video for the opening track, “Sweet Children”:

Jeff Hughes & Chaparral, "Borderland"

Trad-country singer-songwriter Hughes launched Chaparral 35 years ago and had a good run as one of the city’s top honky-tonk draws, with an ever-evolving lineup that included future Austin aces such as brothers Bruce and Charlie Robison and top-flight drummer Lisa Pankratz. But not much recorded material ever surfaced; there was a self-titled release in 1997, and an all-covers disc released in 2001.

“Borderland,” then, comes as a welcome surprise, one that feels like Hughes picked up right where he left off. Its 10 tracks bristle with dance-floor-friendly twang, while the focus remains right where it should be — on Hughes’ warm and richly melodic vocal delivery. It defies the sands of time that an artist could sound as fresh and vibrant in the early 2020s as he did in the late 1980s, but that’s the improbable feat Hughes and his band have pulled off with “Borderland.”

Released: Jan. 2. Here’s the opening track, “Runnin’ the Lights”:

Coming soon

FEB. 11: Spoon, “Lucifer on the Sofa”

FEB. 18: Kiko Villamizar, “Todo El Mundo,” release show Feb. 3 at Antone’s

FEB. 25: Willie D & the Hip Pockets, "Rock, Rhythm, & Jazz”

MARCH 4: Stephen Doster, “Over the Red Sea”

MARCH 4: Andrea Magee, “Belfast Girl”

MARCH 25: Ben Jones, “Souvenir”

MARCH: Robin Mordecai, “Portraits” EP