When French six-man group Caravan Palace released its self-titled debut in 2008, it set a high bar for following acts to reach. Caravan Palace sounded exactly like electro swing should sound—a strange, catchy mash-up of 1920s jazz and swing with thundering club grooves and inventive mixing. Picture a mash-up between Django Reinhardt, Cab Calloway and Daft Punk, and you have an idea of the album.
You threw on Caravan Palace and immediately you heard Reinhardt-esque guitar and fiddle coiled around a dance beat, shuddering to rattling piano and guttural trombone. It was electro swing in a way that acid jazz groups could only dream of—it could rush from swing to cabaret and back again. Its songs were powerful, and hard to get out of your head. It was at once dark, romantic and bizarre, filled with ghosts of the past, evocative of a time and place that no longer exists.
Now the group is back, with a follow-up album that does a lot of things, and does them well.
The French group’s 2012 album Panic is a shorter, tighter outing than its debut, but it packs it in, dishing out beats and jaunty swing with control and confidence. The group has an extraordinary ear for sharp mixing and sampling, and the burps and twists of the trombone and snatches of vocals make the tracks sound like nothing you’ve heard before.
But Panic also has a much clearer objective than its previous album: it just wants you to keep dancing, and its non-stop beat makes the album hew much closer to acid jazz, electro swing’s predecessor, than Caravan Palace ever did. “NewBop”, for instance, sounds like it’s about to become a Durutti Column song, and then smashes into a beat that almost takes it into acid lounge territory.
That’s probably the only way Panic doesn’t expand on the group’s sound. The first album often took time to slow down, dropping the beat behind to explore stranger, darker regions. But where Caravan Palace wanted to take time away from the dance floor to explore haunted houses and wander down dark trails, Panic wants you to keep swinging.
Is Panic Caravan Palace’s attempt to make its sound more palatable, a little more radio-friendly? Its unwillingness to dip into the strange and weird territory of its debut is the album’s only real drawback.
The only exception to this is in the first and final tracks: “Queen” is a dark twisty track long on cabaret and burlesque influences, with Colotis Zoé’s vocals coiling out of snakelike guitar and confident, measured bass, and “Sydney” is a smoky finale that marriages torchy vocals to a Kid A-esque soundscape of atmospheric samples.
But that lack of exploring the dark shouldn’t keep you away. Panic is a confident, skilled showcase for what makes Caravan Palace so special—their songs are incredibly catchy and easy to dance to, and they combine the old and the new to create something romantic, fun and wholly unique.
Panic is out now in stores and on iTunes.