It’s hard to resist joining Setzer’s charge into the past.
Andrew Perry 2009-12-15
With the Stray Cats now officially off the prowl, no longer to roam rock‘n’roll’s treacherous back alleys following 2008’s farewell tour, chief ’Cat Brian Setzer returns in his more artful solo guise.
Though, in the late 70s, Setzer and his quiffabilly outfit had to decamp from Long Island to London for their big break with producer Dave Edmunds, he has made little headway here since the days of Runaway Boys, Stray Cat Strut and the band’s other upright bass-slappin’ early hits.
If considered at all these days, he is usually written off as a Mark Lamarr-style figure of fun, a Stuckist 50s throwback, who, born in 1959, is simply the wrong man in the wrong time and place.
Stateside, by contrast, his unstinting service to post-War American music heritage has earned him three Grammys, and his 18-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra has notched up several million sales, across five albums and a Yuletide selection.
For his latest opus, he renews an association with Frank Cornstock, an 87-year-old arranger, noted for his ‘previous’ with the likes of Doris Day, Judy Garland and Stan Kenton. With this veteran master of swing and big-band skills marshalling the Orchestra’s 13-strong ‘young’ brass army, there is fabulous energy, intricacy and pizzazz to the sound, which is thus almost impossible to tag as merely retro, or authentic.
Setzer, irreversibly, is in thrall to the clothes, musical styles, vernacular and iconography of the 50s, right down to the titular Lonely Avenue – a narrow, more desolate thoroughfare, perhaps, adjoining the Lonely Street in Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel.
There is often a sense, however, that he’s making music that hasn’t been made before. Trouble Train imagines a fusion, unthinkable back in the day, of rockabilly’s thunderous railroad rhythms and electric gee-tar, with big-band jazz and bebop. Similarly, a pair of riotous instrumentals – indicatively entitled Mr Jazzer Goes Surfin’ and Mr Surfer Goes Jazzin’ – rebuild the surf genre afresh, first with tasteful jazzy fretwork, then full-tilt proto-garage frat-party dementia.
Elsewhere, in more straight-ahead fashion, Brian has a go at big-band crooning (My Baby Don’t Love Me Blues), film noir soundtrack melodrama (Kiss Me Deadly) and even flamenco (Elena).
Very fleetingly, during the jump-jiving Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy, the post-millennial world intrudes, as a whining femme orders her tea with “soya milk, please, I’m lactose intolerant”. Then, and throughout, it’s hard to resist joining Setzer’s charge into the past.