Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys’ latest album is more or less framed by a two-part song called “Power of the 45” that, together with the album title, seems to set up Turntable Matinee as a concept album. A simple jaunt that amounts to little more than a sock hop rhythm, a list of musicians Big Sandy loves, and a statement of praise for the simple power of a record, “Power of the 45” seems almost too obvious if you think about it. But it’s not meant for thinking, but for dancing — and that’s exactly the point. Music has an elemental power that transcends description; you feel it, you dance to it, you get it.
Outside of that two-part jingle for vinyl, Turntable Matinee isn’t a concept album about music’s power, but an example of it. Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys have been playing their style of Texas swing (via California), with nods towards rockabilly, for over a decade now. They’ve perfected their formula, but here more than usual they seem willing to let other styles of music in. As long as it sounds good and feels right, it’s a go.
Hence the Elvis-meets-Motown vibe of the showstopper “Slippin’ Away”, where Big Sandy belts out an infectious tune about the disappearing spark of love over horns, a robust bass line, and an absolutely dancefloor-driven pace. Of course there’s some Texas-style guitar licks thrown in there for good measure. Same goes for a nearly tropical/Hawaiian vibe blending into an Old West one for the ballad “You Don’t Know Me at All”, and the moments of “Ruby Jane” that echo Buddy Holly or Ricky Nelson. They’re playing the music of the past that sounds good to them now, in a somewhat freewheeling manner that pulls in other styles while still staying in the general realm of the American West.
If Turntable Matinee has an overarching concept, it’s not just that music’s impact is immediate, but that music helps soothe inner pain, for the listener and the musician. On that opening theme “Power of the 45” it’s easy to miss the line “are you weary and downhearted / We’re gonna get the party started tonight”, but it’s a key one. The best songs here are driven by heartbreak. Time and again, the group takes emotional devastation and conveys it completely but simply, particularly through Big Sandy’s smooth, stylish, and often surprisingly open-hearted singing and the multiple guitars: electric, acoustic and, especially, steel.
So much of the music we now consider classic is fun on the surface and sad underneath. Think of Motown, Texas swing, rock ‘n’ roll — in short, all of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys’ musical touchpoints. They understand a party mood on top of tears, and Turntable Matinee exemplifies that approach. “Yes (I Feel Sorry for You)” is absolutely a lark musically — uptempo, light on its feet, and built to show off the musicians’ chops — yet underneath is a quite sad tale of suspicion ending a relationship. “You Don’t Know Me at All” touches on a similar topic of misunderstanding in a piercingly heartfelt way, but is pleasantly relaxed in tone. Even the more playful, flirtatious numbers like “Ruby Jane” and “Spanish Dagger” have layers of longing and loneliness underneath.
“Haunted Heels” is the epitome of the playful-yet-heartbreaking approach. It starts off like a ghost story, a silly one even, with Big Sandy singing of a box of haunted high heels on a dusty shelf outside New Orleans. Why does he think they’re haunted? Because every night that his lover leaves wearing them, she doesn’t return until morning. It’s a swinging little song, with Big Sandy crooning full-tilt and even a ’50s style saxophone on the fade-out, yet deep within his croon is absolute sadness.
“People can be so unkind / That’s one thing I’ve learned”, Big Sandy sings in the midst of an infectious song of encouragement to young lovers, “Love That Man”. And throughout the album there are countless examples of people breaking each other’s hearts, through their own selfishness or mistakes. But — before the closing credits of “Power of the 45, pt. 2” — the album ends on a note of tenderness, with the sublime ballad “I Know I’ve Loved You Before”. In the song Big Sandy is stating frankly to a departing lover that he knows they’ve loved in another lifetime, so he knows they’re destined to love again. It’s a song of delusion, perhaps, but an especially romantic note to close with. And aren’t dreams and wishes, no matter how unlikely or idealistic, a big part of music’s power as well?
Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys – Jumping From 6 to 6 from the 1994 album of the same name