It's a fine line between "retro" and "novelty", but no one walks it better than Brian Setzer.
If you dismissed the Stray Cats as a silly throwback creation when they broke big in the 1980s, you'll probably feel the same way about Setzer's latest, Rockabilly Riot! All Original. It's essentially the same stuff: amped-up car-club music about girls, engines, and having fun. It sounds nothing like what's on the radio right now, of course, but then it didn't back in 19'82, either. But unlike those other mainstream acts who dabbled in 1950s nostalgia-rock 30 years ago (Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, etc), Setzer's band never came off as pandering or cutesy. Sure, it was self-consciously retro, and sure, the members dressed like extras in Grease with earrings and guyliner. But they came on the scene like an original force to be reckoned with, not some Sha-na-na tribute act. You can have your metal, punk, and new wave, the Stray Cats seemed to say, but let's not forget where it all came from. Besides, if the London punk scene accepted their furious roots-rock, why shouldn't we?
But the Cats were never really punks. Their sheer acumen set them apart from the crowd -- those boys could play. They still can, and they clearly love to, and that's why Rockabilly Riot! All Original is so successful. The album defies criticism -- what more can I say besides "Mission Accomplished?" If you like your rockabilly delivered with panache, energy, and deep musicianship, you'll be all over this one. The songs are good and strong and loaded with energy, and Setzer and his band deliver each one with conviction and grace.
But are we supposed to take it seriously? I mean, these song titles sound like the Grease 2 soundtrack: "Let's Shake". "Vinyl Records". "Stiletto Cool". "Rockabilly Blues". "Rockabilly freakin' Blues", for Christ's sake! Isn't this sort of... gimmicky? Well, maybe, but who cares? Call Setzer a gimmick if you must, but don't doubt for a second that this music is in his blood.
What helps greatly is that he has stripped away all the big-band ornamentation of his Brian Setzer Orchestra. This time, he's backed by the insanely talented trio of Mark Winchester on bass (upright, of course), Noah Levy on drums (stand-up, naturally), and Kevin McKendree on piano (acoustic, don'tchaknow). But it's Setzer's hollow-bodied electric that really drives this music, and damned if he isn't just as monstrous on that thing as ever.
The album opens with "Let's Shake", a fast and furious three-chord excuse for some sweet guitar and pounding piano work... but then, you could apply that description to most of these tunes. Variety isn't really the point here -- this is all about rock and roll in its purest, craziest, swing-danciest form. It's supposed to evoke Gene and Eddie, Chuck, Jerry Lee, Little Richard -- and you know what? It does. (Of course, if you have no idea who I'm talking about, this record probably isn't for you. Wait, scratch that -- yes it is.) It may be calculated, but it drips with its own joy and energy. It's alive.
Highlights include the slowed-down (slightly) "What's Her Name", the furious title track (which features a nifty bass solo), the groovy "Lemme Slide", and the quieter, Ricky Nelson-ish "Girl With the Blues in Her Eyes". But honestly, they're all highlights, especially if you're in the right frame of mind. The album may be knowingly out-of-date, but it still feels mostly honest and true. This isn't "psychobilly" (what a silly term), but Rockabilly Riot is at least as fast and hard as anything The Stray Cats ever released. Still, it feels more secure, more sure of itself. There's no need to cross over into "punk" -- Setzer's brand of wildcat rock is transgressive enough on its own.
Any missteps? I'd nominate "I Should'a Had a V-8", which pushes its intentionally jokey Sousa-melody and ridiculous titular joke into cloying extremes, and "Blue Lights, Big City", which chugs along with a gentle Elvis/Orbison groove and game harmony but lowers the energy level of the set. The final number, "Cock-a-Doodle-Don't", is just as ridiculous as "V-8", but it's too irresistible to ignore. But even these three (the final three on the album) are filled with joy and muscle and a refreshing lack of ego. You might roll your eyes, but skipping them would be like skipping "Chantilly Lace".
I realize I haven't quoted any lyrics, but that's because the lyrics aren't the point. They're good, mind you -- clever and fun and wink-wink naughty -- but they barely matter in the long run. What matters is that these dozen tracks will bring life and joy to your music collection. If they make you want to cuff your jeans and roll a pack of smokes in your t-shirt sleeve, all the better. Look, Rockabilly Riot! All Original isn't going to change the world or anything. But it'll make you smile, dance, and even let out the occasional "Go, cat, go!" Call it novelty if you like, but to me, that's pure rock 'n' roll, daddy-o.