Somehow, throughout Brian Setzer’s long career, it’s escaped a lot of people’s notice that he’s an absolutely phenomenal guitarist. Part of that may be due to the rockabilly persona that he wore so well with the Stray Cats, or the way he deferred to the horn charts on his recent big band albums. Between that, though, were some adventurous records like The Knife Feels Like Justice and Live Nude Guitars that did nothing for him commercially, but which showcased a talent that could pull off any rock guitar style since Chet Atkins first sat down behind Elvis Presley.
Ignition puts the guitar front and center again, and it’s about time. In a time where bludgeoning power chords use force to mask their emptiness, a guitarist who can mix virtuosity with human feeling is a rare gift indeed. To be fair, Brian Setzer’s not known for dollops of sensitivity in his playing. He’s known for some of the greasiest, twangiest rockabilly licks this side of Eddie Cochran—chops that can make you feel like you’re on some lonesome stretch of road out by the county line.
Setzer plays that to the hilt on Ignition, an album with more car references than any three Bruce Springsteen records put together. From the title track’s opening rumble to the lonesome desert feel of the closer, Setzer keeps his hands on some metaphysical steering wheel, where speed is truth and that truth’s maybe made clearer with a pack of smokes. Lyrically, things can get a bit goofy—his plentiful car/sex metaphors (“Ignition”, “Hot Rod Girl”) have nothing on the great blues singers that have, um, hugged those curves before, and the barnyard imagery of “Rooster Rock” sounds a bit cheesy even by swing revival standards. Perhaps the only place where Setzer’s foot slips off of the pedal is on “‘59”, his only real attempt at lyrical substance. It’s mildly nostalgic, but badly out of place on an album that’s primarily concerned with exploring mankind’s threshold for rockabilly rave-ups.
But oh, that guitar. From the chicken pluckin’ country vibe of “8-track” (complete with a yodeled chorus!) to the flamenco interludes on “Santa Rosa Rita”, Setzer offers a textbook course in rockabilly guitar. I’ll leave it to the guitar magazines to tell you exactly what he’s doing, but know that the greasy slide guitar feel of “Who Would Love this Car but Me”, the revved-up bent note solos of “Ignition”, and the cool-cat blues of “Cool Cafe” are pleasures anyone should be able to appreciate. The centerpiece is perhaps “Malaguena”, which finds Setzer in full border bolero mode. It’s a tour-de-force that finds Setzer traipsing off into some desert oasis of guitar and making it sound like a fine place to be.
Ignition thankfully clears away much of the haze that Setzer’s big band forays produced. Those albums were fine in spots, but never played to Setzer’s strengths as a guitarist. Here, he gives us an album that gets back to the musical truths he seemed to subscribe to from the very start with the Stray Cats, but which he seemingly covered up along the way. Far from some frantic grasp at the glory of his past, though, Setzer shows us that there’s still life in the swing/jump blues/rockabilly genre, especially if you throw a little muscle and leather-clad attitude into it.