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Brian Setzer Orchestra,
Room to Swing a Cat

by Shaun Mather,
Rockabilly Hall of Fame Staff Writer

Update: July 1, 2001


Surfdog Records SD-67124-2

Brian Setzer's back behind the wheel of a rockabilly hot rod and he's taking us all for a breathtaking drive with the trunk full of fourteen brand new tracks. After a couple of years singing about Nightingale's in Berkeley Square and Sammy Davis City, Brian is singing like it's 1981 again. The most devastating thing about the whole album is his guitar playing, which sounds better than he's ever done - and that's no mean feat!

68 Comeback Special who consist of Brian together with slap bass playing friend of the RHOF Mark Winchester, and drummer Bernie Dresel, put their feet to the floor and let rip in all but one song and even that's got a late night cruisin' past the diner feel to it.

The title track is an explosive start and although the backing vocals aren't exactly Moonglows-esque, the guitar more than compensates. 5 Years, 4 Months, 3 Days is a driving rocker influenced by Six Days On The Road.

The next couple of numbers are co-writes with Mike Himelstein, and they're both top notch car songs. Hell Bent is an atmospheric tale of dead-end racing with dynamic guitar and a relentless beat. It's a James Dean film with a Link Wray production. All it needs is for Dennis Hopper to make a cameo. It's impossible to listen to Hot Rod Girl without singing Rant 'n' Rave's, Hot Rod Gang in the chorus. 8-Track is a superb road movie song with a bouncy country beat and if the hot hillbilly pickin' ain't enuff fer y'all, he even gives us an extended yodel. This is a pick-up truck track, not a hot rod job Bob!!

Brian writes his own epitaph on '59. If you want to know what makes the man tick over, just take a listen to this. Mark Winchester joins in the fun, singing his own Rooster Rock, an excellent, macho, rockabilly tale. Santa Rosa Rita is split tempo, mixing swaying cha-cha with manicabilly.

(The Legend Of) Johnny Kool (Part 2) leaves burn marks on the asphalt, with rhythym section and guitar jelling in perfect unison. A scorching guitar solo is as demented as Johnny Kool himself, and both the man and the song come to an end, way too soon. Get 'Em On The Ropes is a far from subtle item, which probably works better live than on my CD player. Joe Strummer and Brian became friends in the early London days of the Stray Cats and have remained close buddies ever since, even going on family holidays together. They've collaborated on the plodding auto-dittie Who Would Love This Car But Me? which has some nice slide guitar, sounding in places very much like George Thorogood. His picking on Blue Cafe echoes back to his Cat days.

The only ballad on the CD is the smooth, doo-wop, curb crawler, Dreamsville. Anyone whose heard Richie Valens' version of Malaguena will know what to expect here. Brian and the boys play the hell out of it, and it's a fine way to end the album.

Brian Setzer has been at the front end of a rockabilly revival and a swing revival. Let's hope this is launch of a rockabilly re-revival. It's about time, and this could just be the one to do it. My wife thinks it crap and the worst thing he's ever done. Our divorce is being filed next week. I'm giving her the weekend to listen again and change her mind.

Steel a copy and go for a joy ride. Roll on October, I've got tickets for the London gig and can't wait.

Shaun Mather
June 2001

Not content with bringing one dead American music form back to the public's conscience, Brian Setzer has done it twice. In the early '80s the Stray Cats took rockabilly back to the top of the British charts and eventually the charts worldwide. By the end of the following decade, he was selling 2 million albums of big band swing, echoing a long forgotten style from a long forgotten era. The beauty of both achievements was that Setzer did so on his own terms. His sound was based on, but not restricted by, the original forms, and he has always been able to add his own touches without losing site of the roots.

The first album by the Brian Setzer Orchestra came as a surprise following his two previous solo ventures which had seen him searching for a mature rock identity. The BSO debut was a jazzy affair with a late-night sound supplemented by some tasteful picking from Setzer. Its big band sound is farther removed from the Stray Cats sound than any of the BSO's four albums to date. Sittin' On It All The Time is effective with a mumbling guitar in the background before the album shifts gears during Good Rockin' Daddy which allows Setzer to let rip on this Etta James peach. All turns mellow and atmospheric with the self-written ballad September Skies, a brilliant song which could have graced the likes of Sleepless In Seattle. No doubt picked up during his spell in the UK, Vince Taylor's Brand New Cadillac is given a solid rocking outing, in keeping with the original. There's A Rainbow Over My Shoulder and A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square are fine interpretations of standards, with Nightingale probably being Brian Setzer's finest vocal performance to date. The sax of Michael Acosta blends well with the driving guitar on the catchy Straight Up. The bluesy Stray Cats b-side Drink That Bottle Down lends itself easily to the new format and with more sparkling guitar is a great way to round out the album.

As had happened with the Cats, the second album, Guitar Slinger, was a slightly disappointing follow up, but it still has some delightful moments. The laid back approach to Hey, Louis Prima and Sammy Davis City works as a lovely contrast to some of the more rockin' efforts, the highlight of which is a solid rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan's The House Is Rockin'. There are two attempts at Stray Cat songs from a previous decade, both of which benefit from some menacing guitar work. Despite being a less than obvious choice for the big band arena, Rumble In Brighton works surprisingly well whilst Mellow Saxophone was tailor made for it. The albums highlight for me is the clever, self-written Hoodoo Voodoo Doll which is a fine up tempo jumper.

The Dirty Boogie was the album that justifiably pushed the BSO to greater heights, both musically and in terms of success. Whereas there were times in the first two albums where the experimentation seemed too obvious, by now the sound was fully molded around the players and didn't sound in the slightest way contrived. Again there were covers of two early eighties pop hits, his own Rock This Town and Stuart Hamblen's This Old House, which had helped launch the chart career of Shakin' Stevens in 1981. They are both lively and sound natural with the added horns. Let's Live It Up is a mid tempo crooner with a perfect blend of strings and excellent guitar, with a Runaway Boys type riff running majestically in the background. The award winning Sleepwalk maintains the beautiful wistfulness of Santo & Johnny's original, but also gives Setzer enough scope to display his sensitive wizardry.

Gwen Stefani plays Ann Margaret to Setzer's Elvis on the smolderingly sexy duet You're The Boss. We stay in Vegas for the brilliant cover of Louis Prima's Jump Jive An' Wail, full of honking saxes and a jumping bass. Brian shows a great penchant for a doo-wop ballad be it his own I Won't Stand In Your Way or in this case a beautiful cover of the Skyliners' Since I Don't Have You. Nosey Joe is a great loping version of the Nappy Brown jiver with the double bass well to the fore. Switchblade 327 is a stomping rockabilly effort with a perfect combination of brass and rumbling guitar. The sixties “bright light city” arrangement to his own Hollywood Nocturne cocktail ballad oozes of film-noir images and shows a real maturity to his writing skills. The album closes with Bobby Darins' As Long As I'm Singin' which again benefits from some hot picking.

The latest album, Vavoom! has met with a mixed reception from the American press but I love it. The double bass has moved forward from the orchestra pit and sits up front with Brians' Gretsch to give some tracks a real rockabilly feel. Drive Like Lightning (Crash Like Thunder) is a perfect example and is like the latter day Stray Cats of the late '80s. Written by Setzer and new bass man Mark Winchester of former Tennessee foursome the Planet Rockers, the bass and Brian's best Link Wray impersonations make me yearn for a full blooded rocking set. The two, together with drummer Bernie Dresel have formed a part time three-piece rockabilly band '68 Comeback Special so it would be nice if they'd drop by a studio and lay down more of the same. There's more rockabilly in the shape of the pounding '49 Mercury Blues, complete with a blistering solo and the bouncy If You Can't Rock Me.

The two Glenn Miller covers are harder to decide on, on the one hand they're good time dance fodder, on the other they're a bit gimmicky and contrived. Don't ponder over it, grab a gal and hit the floor is yer best bet. Jumpin' East Of Java and Caravan are hot stuff, with some stinging licks and a swinging beat. The Footloose Doll is smooth jazz slightly marred by strained vocals, but redeemed by mentioning Gene Vincent in the lyrics. There's more of the same with From Here To Eternity which is a really swinger as is the great cover of Mack The Knife. The obligatory doo-wopper is the delicious Gloria, which comes over well. His own That's The Kind Of Sugar Daddy Likes is a proto-type rockabilly-swing-doo-wop jiver and good fun is it is too. Last but not least is Americano, a brilliant hybrid of exotic sound, catchy with split tempos and perhaps the best song the Brian Setzer Orchestra have ever done. If released in the UK and given the proper push from Interscope, this could be a big hit along the lines of the Mavericks or Ricky Martin. That would mean I'd have to start watching Top Of The Pops again, so on second thoughts, I hope they don't release it! I eagerly await the fifth album coz I love this fourth one, it's my favourite.

Shaun Mather
October 2000

Setzer Orchestra

Hollywood Records

Lady Luck
Ball And Chain
Sittin' On It All The Time
Good Rockin' Daddy
September Skies
Brand New Cadillac
There's A Rainbow Over My Shoulder
Route 66
Your True Love
A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square
Straight Up
Drink That Bottle Down

Interscope Records

The House Is Rockin'
Hoodoo Voodoo Doll
Town Without Pity
Rumble In Brighton
The Man With The Magic Touch
(The Legend Of) Johnny Kool
Ghost Radio
(Everytime I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone
Buzz Buzz
My Baby Only Cares For Me
Hey, Louis Prima
Sammy Davis City

The Dirty

Interscope Records

This Cat's On A Hot Tin Roof
The Dirty Boogie
This Old House
Let's Live It Up
Jump Jive An' Wail
You're The Boss
Rock This Town
Since I Don't Have You
Switchblade 327
Nosey Joe
Hollywood Nocturne
As Long As I'm Singin'


Interscope Records

Pennsylvania 6-5000
Jumpin' East Of Java
If You Can't Rock Me
Gettin' In The Mood
Drive Like Thunder (Crash Like Thunder)
Mack The Knife
The Footloose Doll
From Here To Eternity
That's The Kind Of Sugar Papa Likes
'49 Mercury Blues

The Official Brian Setzer Orchestra web page

Phil and Shaun's STRAY CAT page

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