Brian Setzer Orchestra
There’s more than one way to rock, and Brian Setzer proves it on 13.
As you might guess, this is the 13th album (of original material) to feature the three-time Grammy winner’s blazing guitar and swaggering vocals. Whether fronting a big-band extravaganza or leading the legendary Stray Cats to superstardom, he’s earned his place in pop history. Consider:
Two great guitar companies have honored him: Gretsch, by creating a series of signature guitars in his name, Gibson by giving him their Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Awards. The Rock and Roll Hall of fame tapped him to induct Chet Atkins. He’s co-starred with the Stones and Tom Petty on The Simpsons. Hell, he’s even got an honorary poker chip at Atlantic City’s House of Blues Casino.
But with 13, Setzer does something he never did before: Rather than single-handedly revive an entire musical genre – he’s already been there/done that, with rockabilly in the ‘80s and swing in the ‘90s – he covers these bases and many more: You’ll hear Delta blues, jump blues, hard rock, metal, Texas boogie, a smidgen of Les Paul, a hint of Japanese pop, and even some British music hall, complete with ukulele and tuba, throughout this tour de force.
“The thing is,” Setzer says, “I’ve always thought that you have to have one focus on each album; that just made sense to me. But with this one, I’d written a bunch of songs, and when I played them for people, they’d say, ‘Why don’t you put them all on one record?’ My argument was, ‘Well, records should have one focus or sound.’ Their answer was … ‘Why?’”
For once, the normally loquacious superstar could think of nothing to say.
“Instead, I started thinking about the Beatles,” he remembers. “Their records were pretty much all over the place. And all of my songs are based on guitar riffs, so that ties them together. They’re all rock & roll in one way or another. So, I thought, what the hell, let’s do it.”
That’s all it took for Setzer to book time at a studio in Cannon Falls, not far from his current home in Minneapolis, summon drummer Bernie Dresel and bassist Ronnie “Crusher” Crutcher as his rhythm section, plug in his Gretsch, crank up his Fender Bassman and Supro amps, and unleash a set of performances – 13, of course – that hold up against even the hottest tracks in his catalog.
“I picked this studio because it’s got a big, open, wooden room, like a gym, that let’s me get that live sound I like. I turned my Bassman to seven for the rhythm and ten for the lead parts, and ran my guitar through the Supro too, for that solid bottom end. There’s nothing fancy about it; I didn’t even use my Space Echo on this record, even though I’m normally glued to it. In this case, it was all about getting loud and playing hard.”
This was what you’d expect from the flashiest, raunchiest, and most irresistible guitar monster on the planet. What’s surprising is how this approach works on each of these songs, even with all their variety. You get the point in just the first few seconds of the opening cut, “Drugs & Alcohol (Bullet Holes),” where the spirits of Merle Travis and raw, roadhouse rock somehow find common ground.
To Setzer, though, this performance makes an even more important point. “To me, this is how modern rockabilly should sound,” he insists. “Instead, everybody’s trying to be this straight-out-of-the-book, ‘50s character, like they want to be an exact replica of Johnny Cash. Well, there was only one Johnny, so why not do something new?”
So there is a theme to 13 after all. Whether you’re savoring the vocal harmonies of Brian and Julie Setzer – sorry, guys, she’s married –on the country stomper “Don’t Say You Love Me” or gaping at the blizzard of licks as Japanese guitar giant Tomoyasu Hotei goes toe-to-toe with Setzer throughout “Back Streets of Tokyo,” the mission of 13 eventually becomes clear:
“Basically,” Setzer explains, “I’m just trying to piss people off.”
“People,” in this case, means anyone who settles for music that’s more about hubris than heart. As a kid, Setzer wasn’t immune to the appeal of looking cool, but it was the soul rather than the look of music that drew him to jazz, Delta blues, punk, vintage rock – anything, really, that comes from the gut and pumps out a beat. Whether updating rockabilly with the Stray Cats or yanking swing into the space age with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, he kept his priorities straight: Play what’s real and let others worry about turning it into a fashion statement.
Yet even Setzer can put up with this silliness only for so long: “I remember being 16 years old and even then there were poseurs on the corner, looking too cool for school. I mean, when you’re more worried about your look than your music, that just kills it for me."
This explains “Really Rockabilly,” a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the tyranny of trendiness, with former Stray Cat Slim Jim Phantom driving the beat. “Jim and I used to laugh about these guys who live in this ‘50s world,” Setzer says, “so I had to get his old-buddy rockabilly energy on this one.” Ditto for “We Are the Marauders,” a fist-pumping anthem that Setzer actually wrote for a young band whose story gives him hope even in this era of focus groups and fix-it studio technology.
“The Marauders are these guys in western Pennsylvania who are trying to play their own version of rockabilly in a sea of Eminem wannabes,” he says. “Bands don’t do that kind of thing anymore, where you live in a crummy basement, fight with each other, love each other, and make your own kind of music. Instead, you’re taught that you only need to put on a cool outfit and warble something. You don’t need to play an instrument. You certainly don’t need to read or write music; someone will write it for you. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to be like these guys, who live their music every day.”
Each of these songs is concise. There’s no excessive doodling. There are killer solos – being a Setzer product, there would have to be, no? But every note he plays or sings – the skin-tight lick that kicks off “Everybody’s Up to Somethin’,” the exotic whole-tone riff that he lays out on banjo at the top of “Bad Bad Girl (In A Bad Bad World),” the Django jive of “When Hepcat Gets the Blues” – serves one purpose: to rock as hard as a multi-tattooed, pompadour-topped, former Long Island street kid can.
And if … when … it pisses people off? Setzer shrugs: “I’m not trying to prove anything. I mean, Bob Dylan told me once, ‘You’ll never be pure enough for the purists. And you’ll never be experimental enough for the critics.’”
On the other hand, if all you want is passionate vocals, state-of-the-art guitar, or just to be pummeled into ecstasy by an unstoppable beat and scorched by some of the hottest guitar lines on record, 13 is your lucky number.