Little Charlie and the Nightcats: Nine Lives

[8 September 2005]

By Jason MacNeil

The blues has many different genres; not all of it is the old-time Delta blues of Waters or Johnson. Some of it is Texas influenced and has its own signature swagger or swing. Then there is a West Coast style which seems to be a hybrid with its own unique finishing touches. Little Charlie and the Nightcats might have nine lives on this, aptly enough, their ninth studio album, but unlike previous efforts that were critically acclaimed and praised, Nine Lives tends to run on empty on a few occasions. The leadoff track “Keep Your Big Mouth Shut” brings to mind the Fabulous Thunderbirds if they were performing in front of an old folks’ home. Slow and with very little in the way of punch or panache, the horns seem to be the lone selling point here as it stumbles along. Drummer J. Hansen has some backing vocals on this offering, but it should be a tune you’d find in the middle of the record, not the beginning. Little Charlie Baty does have some fine moments in the bridge, though, recalling the likes of Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.

“Handle With Care” has that swinging, jazz-meets-big band blues flavor, although lead singer Rick Estrin tends to overdo the vocals here with a slick, lounge-like manner. Unfortunately, the guitar tends to get buried in the mix, while Estrin’s harmonica does little in the way of captivating with a basic, rudimentary solo that has no flash and very little dash. It’s only when the tempo picks up that the song comes alive, but it shouldn’t take this long to get the band’s mojo going. Then Baty comes to bat with a series of licks that complements the ascending and descending bass line from Lorenzo Farrell. Here, the band resembles a tight and well-oiled, roadworthy jazz trio. “So Good” is a slower, tamer affair, but works because it has all the aura and substance of an early Sun Records recording. Think of legends like Perkins or even Elvis doing this tune and it flows to near perfection. Some might consider it lazy, but sometimes lazy works, as it does here.

Unfortunately, the schmaltzy “Got to Have a Job” makes the listener think that maybe the band should start looking for one. “What if she’s big and fat / Man I’m cool with that / What if she’s extra thin / Man include me in”, they sing, with a format that is part jazz and part Latin. And throughout it is almost yawn-inducing, marginally saved with Baty doing more meticulous, moody picking in the bridge. When Little Charlie and the Nightcats creep along, as they do with “Circling the Drain”, they are better, as the rhythm section is needed to carry the song along early and often. There is humor in the song, but someone like John Hiatt might pull it off far easier. When the group veers into an old-school rock, they fare well, as on “Don’t Cha Do Nothin’”, which resembles a polished Lee Dorsey ditty (he of “Ya Ya” fame). But this style has a very thin line, and they fall over it during “Cool Johnny Twist”, which is about as cool as, well, a cucumber that’s been left out in the sun for a week or nine. And when it does work, it’s far too little and much too late.

Then there are other efforts, such as “Tag (You’re It)”, that are bound to make you scratch your head. An instrumental that could be heard as an intro to a third rate lounge singer, the ditty would be a great fade out for the record, but instead it takes on an abysmal life of its own. And “Deep Pockets” is rather shallow in terms of quality or substance, although maybe after the fifth or sixth listen you’d get into it, the same way you enjoy a classic Motown song within the first 2 or 3 milliseconds. The group has lost the plot by now and is just doing what feels good on the mid-tempo rambling “Wall to Wall” and subsequent “Sugar Daddy Sweet”. It’s a record that has its moments, but few, far, and fleeting ones at best.

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