While it’s stretching things to suggest Katharine Whalen is no longer living in the past, she’s never sounded more current than on Dirty Little Secret. The North Carolina chanteuse’s second solo outing makes it clear she’s not interested in aping those who have come before her. That’s something new: The mid-’90s found Whalen obsessed with ’20s hot jazz as a member of the much-missed Squirrel Nut Zippers. By the time she stepped out on her own in 1999 with Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad, she was taking her inspiration from the 1940s, drawing countless comparisons to Billie Holiday.
On Dirty Little Secret, Whalen teams up with producer David Sale (who plays all the instruments) to create an exotically original, genre-busting beauty. The bold reinvention becomes evident right off the top with “The Funnest Game”, which meshes reverb-drenched spy-theme guitar with rabbit-punch horns and hyper-caffeinated percussion.
Whalen and Sale display little interest in writing the same song twice. “You-Who” sweetens third-generation trip-hop with funktastic horn swells, “Follow” plays out like gospel-country filtered through Angelo Badalamenti, and “Three Blind Mice” is sinfully sultry lounge loaded with techno-flavored bass bombs.
Mixing and matching everything from fever-dream calypso to dredged-from-the-Delta blues to lo-fi cabaret balladry, Dirty Little Secret never runs out of surprises. Whalen has a dirty little secret all right, and it’s that she’s been holding back what she’s truly capable of, until now.