With her sleek bob haircut (usually with a flower or two placed just so), vintage dresses, strikingly beautiful looks, and artfully customized ukulele, Janet Klein might seem at first to be a simple novelty act, a Generation X hipster ironically recreating the subtly naughty look of a fin-de-siècle French postcard. Then she opens her mouth to sing. There's no Betty Boop hiccups or Mae West-style brassiness in her charmingly original voice. And when she starts to play the ukulele, it's clear that this oft-ridiculed cousin of the guitar is neither prop nor gimmick, but a delightful and underutilized musical instrument. Bearing an ever-expanding repertoire of, as she puts it, "obscure, lovely, and naughty songs from the '10s, '20s, and '30s," Janet Klein is a musical archeologist hiding in a Gibson girl's body.
Raised in San Bernardino, CA, during the '70s, Klein's early musical education came from her father, Stephen Klein, a teacher and avant-garde animator whose taste ran primarily to Frank Zappa and classical. Even more importantly, Klein's grandparents regaled her with tales of New York in the '30s (where her grandfather, Marty Klein, had worked as a stage magician), instilling in the girl a lifelong fascination with pre-World War II American popular culture. By the time Klein moved to Los Angeles to start college in the early '80s, this had translated into an interest in both early jazz recordings and the graphic design styles of the era. Through the former, Klein discovered early female jazz singers like Lil Hardin Armstrong (Louis Armstrong's wife and early manager) and Blanche Calloway (sister of Cab). The latter hobby led Klein to start collecting sheet music from the 1800s to the jazz age, at first purely for the pictures and artwork, then increasingly out of love for the songs themselves.
Around this time, Klein met Robert Loveless, a local post-punk musician (Savage Republic, 17 Pygmies, etc.) who shared her love for early 20th century art and design and encouraged her artistic pursuits. Although Klein was becoming progressively more intrigued with her favorite style of music, she initially decided against becoming a singer, instead channeling her creative energies into poetry and painting (she self-published a chapbook of poems and drawings, When They Kiss I Leave, in 1989) as well as performance art. Along the way, Klein picked up the ukulele, and as she mastered the instrument, she began to incorporate some of her favorite old songs into her poetry readings. Klein's voice, a breathy alto, was perfectly suited to material from the teens and '20s, and by 1996, Klein dropped the poetry aspect of her performances entirely, concentrating on performing her favorite old songs in an authentic and straightforward style, staying true to the original material while entirely avoiding any whiff of kitsch or nostalgia.
Klein's low-key performing style places the lyrics foremost, so that the clever construction and witty rhymes can be best appreciated. Indeed, her debut album, 1998's Come Into My Parlor, is almost a solo record, with Klein's vocals and ukulele occasionally unobtrusively supported by John Reynolds' Django Reinhardt-style guitar and producer Loveless' accordion, mandolin, harmonica, and triangle.
After that album was recorded, Klein started putting together a band to perform with. The Parlor Boys are a loose-knit conglomeration that can include up to a dozen musicians but usually tops out around six or seven. Reynolds (the grandson of '30s comic actress Zasu Pitts) remains, accompanied by two charter members of Robert Crumb's '70s trad jazz group the Cheap Suit Serenaders, Robert Armstrong (Hawaiian steel guitar, accordion, and musical saw), and Tom Marion (guitar, mandolin, and banjo), plus music historian Brad Kay (piano and cornet), and, on occasion, musicologist, author, radio personality, and former British Invasion teen idol Ian Whitcomb (ukulele and accordion). Klein's second album, 2000's Paradise Wobble (like the first, bedecked in vintage photos and perfect replication of vintage graphic design), was credited to Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys. The wide-ranging disc earns the communal credit, featuring several Hawaiian-flavored instrumentals showcasing Armstrong, as well as a delightful Whitcomb lead vocal on the profoundly odd "Tain't No Sin to Take Off Your Skin and Rattle Around in Your Bones," a 1930 obscurity with a title that later turned up in a William S. Burroughs poem. ~ Stewart Mason