Before there was The Living End and Tiger Army, and even before some of its members decided to go for bloated big band boredom to extend their careers, there was a rockabilly band called The Stray Cats. Remember them? They got their dinner from a garbage can when they were feeling like Casanova. Well, while The Stray Cats have continued on and off with some reunion tours, its members have pressed on. The most notable might be Brian Setzer and his, again, bloated big band albums. But while Setzer has been in the spotlight on occasion, Lee Rocker has really never strayed from what the Stray Cats were all about. If you need any more proof, just look at the back of this disc, where he is holding a standup bass over his knee and plucking the hell out of it. The latest release from Rocker is what you would come to expect from someone who only knows rock and rockabilly and how vivacious the genre can be when done right.
Produced by Rocker and with a strong supporting cast rounding things out, the singer wastes no time getting down to brass tacks with “The Girl From Hell” with its dirty guitar riffs and rumbling backbeat. Helped out by Brophy Dale and Buzz Campbell on guitars, Rocker nails the tune about a girl who can cast a wicked spell. While not quite as powerful as it could be, the track is a very pleasing opener that would sound like a mix of Urge Overkill, Chris Isaak and Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. It’s a long lost cousin from a song that Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins might have tried in that cramped, one-microphone Sun Records studio. From there they seem to sandpaper the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” down to its bare bones. While it would be odd to call the original slick and almost overproduced, this version is a no-nonsense tune that again has a seedy guitar riff underneath Rocker’s vocals and the occasional shouts in the chorus. And the bridge is very, very good—short and to the point and boogie-inducing.
Rocker slows things down for a countrified “The River Runs” that ambles along a very nice road paved nowadays by the likes of Wilco, Golden Smog and Blue Rodeo. In no hurry to finish but just rolling easily from verse into chorus as Rocker gives a strong vocal here. The first mid-tempo toe-tapper on the album, Rocker swaps the upright bass for an acoustic guitar on this song that brings to mind Presley’s “That’s Alright Mama” in terms of the guitar picking. It’s a fine primer for the Carl Perkins cover “Say When”, which again mixes the rockabilly with a pinch of country for more boogie. Staying true to the original but still making it sound its own, Rocker and his band perform this number perfect. Just as stellar is the opening notes to “Race Track Blues” which is often heard on a trumpet prior to any horse race. Here Rocker, the drums and the guitar pick up the pace for a hellish, knee-knocking rockabilly ditty that hits the ground galloping. And even then Rocker is able to up the ante with each verse for the duration of the three-minute and change tune.
Now that he has established what he can do with this album, the remainder is all of Rocker’s own material, including the mid-tempo and softer “Ramblin’” that is perfect troubadour music. The ensuing “Runnin’ From the Hounds” is less successful that sounds like some odd blend of Duane Eddy and a rudimentary ska track. Rocker is able to pull it off but by the thinnest of margins. A better effort comes along with the lean and bare-bones approach to “Texarkana to Panama City” that again sounds like old-school rock and roll or rockabilly. It seems the only contemporary that might be able to pull these songs off would be Social Distortion’s Mike Ness. Rocker then makes things rather poppy and almost contemporary with the mid-tempo “Lost on the Highway”, which recalls the opening to Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”.
Rocker rounds the album off with “Swing This” that, yes, does swing a la les chats des stray (okay, sue me, I wasn’t that good in French!). But the instrumental seems to be the perfect nightcap to this surprisingly pleasing album that makes you want to seek out his previous albums.
// Notes from the Road
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