By Eleni P. Austin
Brian Setzer has always had an old soul, even when he was a kid. Born in 1959, the Long Island native grew up playing music. In high school he played in Jazz bands and even traveled to the venerable Village Vanguard in NYC to hear Jazz played live. By his late teens, he’d gravitated to Rock, Punk and Rockabilly.
After a stint with a Punk outfit called the Bloodless Pharaohs, he formed The Tomcats with his brother Gary. They morphed into Stray Cats when bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom joined the fold. Not long after, they pared down to a trio when Gary quit the band. Thinking their retro sound would fare better in England, these rebel rockers sold their instruments to finance their trip across the pond.
Happily, that hunch proved correct. After playing for a few months in London, they built up a loyal and passionate following. Pretty soon, the members of the Who, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were spotted at Stray Cat gigs. They also met musician and Rockabilly aficionado Dave Edmunds. They scored a record deal with Arista Records and Dave came onboard to produce. Their self-titled debut arrived in early 1981. A sharp mix of covers and original songs, it shot up to #6 on the British charts. Less than a year later, they followed up with the self-produced Gonna Ball, which was equally as agile, but garnered less attention.
Meanwhile, America began to catch on, here in the states, they inked a deal with the EMI America label and cherry-picked songs from both records for their American debut, Built For Speed. Released in the Spring of 1982, songs like “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” became huge hit singles. They also sparked a mini-Rockabilly revival. Another album, Rant N’ Rave With The Stray Cats appeared in 1983, but the trio called it quits in the mid ‘80s.
Brian launched a solo career with his 1986 album, The Knife Feels Like Justice. Eschewing his trademark Rockabilly sound, his new music hewed more closely to a Roots Rock approach favored by artists like The Blasters, Los Lobos and John Mellencamp. 1988’s Live Nude Guitars rocked even harder. But less than a decade later, he took a page from Louie Prima’s playbook and formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra, with the intention of revitalizing classic Big Band/Swing music. By their third effort, Dirty Boogie, Brian and his ensemble claimed two Grammy Awards.
Between 1986 and 2021, he toggled between the orchestra, a solo career and occasional Stray Cats reunions. All told, he’s released eight more Orchestra albums, 10 more solo efforts and six Stray Cats projects. Now, he’s just recorded his 13th solo long-player, The Devil Always Collects. A rambunctious trio of tracks kick the record into gear. First up, “Rock Boys Rock” careens out of the speakers like a runaway locomotive. Twang-tastic guitar and a walking bass are matched by a fractious freight train rhythm. Sharp lyrics pay enthusiastic homage to a woman who turned his life around: “Her figure proudly announced she’s got it right where it counts, yeah, she walks with natural bounce…. yeah she was sexy for days, and brother she had those legs, woke me up with pork chops and eggs.” Brian rips a guitar solo on the break that distills some of the boom-chicka-boom verisimilitude pioneered by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. Following the lyrics final benediction: “As long as she’s by my side, you count me in for the ride, she’s shouting out ‘Rock boys! Rock, plug it in the box and show me what you got,” the fleet fretwork of his solo on the outro displays the kind of casual virtuosity that comes from playing guitar for close to half a century.
The title track is up next, lickety-split guitar licks wrap around thumping, upright bass and a pedal-to-the-metal beat. Brian’s commiserating croon cocoons lyrics that remind us whenever a deal is made at the crossroads of sin and salvation, the devil never forgets: “I bought a ticket to heaven that he had to sell, but I guess I missed the fine print about the detour to hell, he ain’t in no hurry, he’s got a lifetime to burn, he’ll step from the shadows when you’ve got nowhere to turn/you bargained for pleasure, fame fortune and sex, payback knock, knock, knocks, the devil always collects.” Rumbling, reverb-drenched guitar riffs ride roughshod on the break, urgently pursued by the hell-for-leather rhythm section, finally accelerating wildly through a series of melodic hairpin turns before stopping on a dime.
Finally, Surf n’ Twang guitars ricochet across boomerang bass lines and pile-driving beat for “Girl On A Billboard.” Nimble lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a Big Rig pile-up as truckers take their eyes off the road to ogle a near-naked feminine visage; “I slow my jimmy down to 20, that’s how many wrecks I see every day caused by a girl wearing nothing but a smile on the billboard near the field near the big ol’ highway.” The song echoes the shaggy dog ethos of classic Beat Farmers songs, and shares some musical DNA with Chris Isaak’s “Goin’ Nowhere.”
The action slows on a couple of cuts, the slinky, Mancini-flavored “She’s Got A Lotta…. Soul” and the the groovy gothic noir of “The Living Dead.” Then the record revs back up like a souped-up hot rod. “Black Leather Jacket splits the difference between Rockabilly slap-back and AOR crunch. Slashing power chords are wed tensile bass lines, rat-a-tat handclaps and a crackling beat. This time out, the object of Brian’s affection isn’t a paragon of feminine pulchritude, but an inanimate item that is literally ride or die: “Well it was still brand new and it fit like a glove, well, trust me baby, you’re the only one I’m thinkin’ of, I held you close, I looked in your eyes, I knew from that moment on, I found paradise…I went down hard on a midnight ride and my black leather jacket took the road in stride.” Guitars stack on the break, landing somewhere between Eddie Cochrane’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.”
This record is, as the kids say, all killer, no filler, but a couple of tracks stand out from the pack, “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)” and “What’ll It Be Baby Doll?” On the former, Brian offers up a rollicking take of the Rockpile raver, written by Nick Lowe and recorded for their one and only 1980 album, Seconds Of Pleasure. Jackrabbit guitars collide with loose-limbed bass, a walloping beat and Boogie-Woogie piano. The lyrics’ opening verses sketch out a rough and tumble tableau: “Hangin’ out at Frankie’s. everyone was stoned, the player it was playing something really gone, some people they were dancing and some people were clappin’ hands, and some were just lyin’ close, makin’ sweet romance.” Brian’s spiky licks punctuate each neatly-turned phrase, until the break when he unleashes a sparkling solo that shimmies, stutters and spirals atop a cluster of piano chords that ripple and sway. Meanwhile, the latter drafts off the tribal tattoo that band leader Benny Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa devised for Louie Prima’s epochal hit, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Splashy guitar riffs, buoyant bass and Brian’s exuberant vocals initially overshadow the whipcrack beat, as lyrics implore a femme fatale to ditch the 9-5 world; “Yeah, you got a gig at the CVS, I’m parked outside prayin’ you’ll say yes, you been hot and cold, sittin’ on the fence, but true love baby don’t make no sense/The motor is runnin’ I’m ready to fly, come on let’s kiss this town goodbye, what’ll it be baby doll, what’ll it be?” Brian’s strafing solo echoes antecedents like Les Paul and Speedy West, but he momentarily hangs back and, to paraphrase James Brown, he gives the drummer some. As he navigates a series of aural switchbacks, drummer Victor Indrizzo matches the twists and turns with a swiftly accelerating beat until the tension ratchets to a brawny, big beat crescendo.
The record races to the finish line with three quicksilver rave-ups. Squiggly guitar riffs unspool across sinewy upright bass and a syncopated beat on “A Dude’ll Do What A Dude’ll Do.” Lyrics offers a little self-reflection: “You can tell a dude watch your step, you’re living fast, a side piece ain’t built to last, a dude’ll do what a dude’ll do… I been that that dude that don’t think twice, I won’t take no one’s advice, I’m the guy who never learned, when you burn a bridge the thing stays burned/You can tell a dude, slow your roll, you’ll fall right down a rabbit hole.” The infectious Jitterbug melody is matched by Brian’s prickly guitar pyrotechnics on the break.
“Psycho Suzie” is a muscular Garage Rocker fueled by rapid-fire guitar licks, skittery bass and a pummeling beat. Lyrics offer an apocryphal tale of a woman who won’t take no for an answer and can drink our hero under the table: “I went out alone last night to have myself a drink, Mama, she wanted to come along, I didn’t have time to think, the last time that I took her there, she pushed me to the brink…I left my Mama down at Psycho Suzie’s, I left her hangin’ out with some old floozy, they just stayed out all night, they had a doozy, I’m tellin’ you man, my Mama’s not too choosy.” The arrangement downshifts on the break, and he executes a scorchy, scuzzy, Rockabilly solo over a rattle-trap beat.”
Finally, the record closes with the finger-poppin’ cool of “One Particular Chick.” Guitars swagger and strut, sidling around slithering upright bass, and a low-slung shuffle rhythm. Sly, slick and wicked lyrics find this one-time alley cat changing his ways: “You know it used to be that one particular chick on any given day used to do the trick, to make the blues go away, ‘til I met this one particular chick on that one particular day, now this particular chick is here to stay, and I like it that way.” A waspish guitar floats like a butterfly and stings with the alacrity of a bee on the break, before coming around for a final epiphany: “It was that one particular chick who suddenly caught my eye, quietly letting me know I’m her particular kind of guy, and now it’s that one particular chick, the one I love so true, and that one particular chick is you.” It’s a surprisingly sweet finish to a stellar record.
This is a solo record in name only. While Brian sang and played lead guitar, bass duties were split by upright bassist David Spicher and electric bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas. Victor Indrizzo pounded the drum kit with authority and Kevin McKenoree tackled piano. The horn section featured Nick Depinna, Tim Messina and Ron Blake. Julie Setzer and Jennifer Goforth handled backing vocals and the album was co-produced by Brian and Julian Raymond (Fastball, Glen Campbell and Cheap Trick).
Although he’s always looked to the past for inspiration, Brian Setzer’s music never seems dated. Playing his hunches has given him the freedom to follow his muse. The Devil Always Collects doesn’t disappoint.