Brian Setzer doesn’t want your money. That’s the only possible explanation for all the banjo-plucking, yodeling, classical noodling and other activities guaranteed to keep his songs off the radio, not to mention most other places where people find music these days.
Setzer could have disappeared into the sunset after the Stray Cats went to that great feline rescue center in the sky, but he succeeded against all odds with his Brian Setzer Orchestra, first riding the unlikely swing craze of the mid-’90s and then with this decade’s Christmas records and tours. His most successful non-holiday effort remains 1998’s The Dirty Boogie, probably because that record stayed mostly true to his rockabilly roots while still swinging like a runaway big-band freight train.
Since then he’s experimented more – with hip-hop rhythms on Vavoom! (2000), and classical compositions on Wolfgang’s Big Night Out (2007) – and if record buyers haven’t responded as enthusiastically, Setzer certainly seems to be having a grand old time. But he takes a slightly darker turn on his orchestra’s latest, Songs from Lonely Avenue (Surfdog).
The first BSO album to feature all Setzer originals, the bandleader says he envisioned it as the soundtrack to an unwritten 1940s or ‘50s film noir – but listening to it, it’s not just a soundtrack. It’s the whole darn movie.
A trip down Lonely Avenue features gunfights, deals gone bad and at least one flirty moll – Setzer’s wife Julie Reiten, who on “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy” proves herself as able a foil to Setzer as Gwen Stefani was on Boogie’s “You’re the Boss.” There’s also a thug who, on “King of the Whole Damn World,” spells out his tough-guy credo in a Runyonesque rasp. If what Setzer set out to do was create a smoky landscape of swinging toughs and jilted fall guys, he’s succeeded – in spades, as one of his characters might say.
Typical of Setzer, he’s most successful when he lets his Gretsch guitar do much of the talking, like on the steam-powered “Trouble Train” that kicks off the LP, and a pair of instrumentals, the smooth “Mr. Jazzer Goes Surfin’” and its hell-bent companion piece, “Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin’.”
Setzer probably indulges his inner crooner once too often; “Lonely Avenue” is a fine misty wee-hours ballad, but “My Baby Don’t Love Me Blues” only accentuates the limitations of some of his moon-in-June lyrics. Turns out he makes a better Sammy than he does a Dean, as he shows on the bongo-driven two-minute swing rave-up “Love Partners in Crime.”
Setzer definitely benefits from the contributions of 87-year-old big-band arranger Frank Comstock, with whom he hooked up for Wolfgang. If the album lacks as many standouts as The Dirty Boogie, Lonely Avenue, with its darker arrangements, holds together better thematically – if Boogie brought the rockabilly power, this one brings a late-night swingtime mood that serves it well – more than on the group’s other albums, the band provides the shadings of a real orchestra, not just the bombast of 15 blaring horns.
Yes, I’m saying that Setzer can do subtle – he also shows that with the album’s closer, “Elena,” a beautiful acoustic guitar instrumental with more than a few nods to “Malaguena,” which Setzer covered in its full electric glory on Ignition! (2001). It’s a reminder that as much fun as his big band can be, a disc of Setzer guitar instrumentals would be a welcome next step for the rockabilly iconoclast. Who knows, it might even sell a few copies.
Not that he would care.