Brian Setzer – Setzer goes Instru-MENTAL!

The long-time rockabilly giant, Brian Setzer, released his first instrumental album in April 2011, some thirty years since he left Long Island, New York for London, England and made rockabilly history with Stray Cats. In my humble opinion, Setzer is one the most under-rated guitarists of all time, a fact perhaps caused by Setzer’s choice of expressing himself through rockabilly and swing rather than the guitarists’ staples of rock and the blues. The album builds on Setzer’s repertoire of instrumental tracks such as the now-classic Sleepwalk and the paired tracks on Songs From Lonely Avenue.

The feel of the album varies across the tracks but sits largely in the country/ rockabilly zone. This means that there are rockabilly tracks to please Setzer’s hardcore rocker-fans and the country tracks to allow him step outside the standard repertoire, as he has done in the past with When The Bells Don’t Chime. The album is of-course string dominated with Setzer’s skills on guitar, banjo and others dominating the sound. Most of the tracks have the ideal rockabilly/country sound with that hint of echo intimating the band sat in the room like those good ol’ days of Union Avenue.

Blue Moon of Kentucky – A rockabilly-chug gives way to some smooth country licks on track in what I imagine to be a Chet Atkins style, although I can’t claim to be to up on the great man himself. The percussion is limited to a few clicks and cymbal strokes in the background with a second Setzer guitar supplying most of the rhythm. A nice track with some good clean country pickin’.

Cherokee – A guitar-ed up version of the original by the Ray Noble Orchestra. The style in this track is quite hard to pin down but I settle on calling it lounge Jazz. There are possibly up to three Setzer overdubs on this track, with two electrics trading some fast-picking blows and an acoustic holding the rhythm underneath. The track has some very smart speedy playing in it as it progresses and shows of Brian’s trademark of pulling into a chord in solos with almighty effect!

Be-Bop-A-Lula – The first of the real rockabilly tracks to feature on the album. The first verse and chorus sound very much like an instrumental run-through of the song made famous by Gene Vincent, from there-on in the song hangs together very much like a series of solos that Brian might play in a live rendition of the track, but then, when his soloing is this good, that’s not really something to complain about!

Earl’s Breakdown – A cover of the original bluegrass track laid down by Flatt and Scruggs; Setzer’s version remains true in feeling but drops out the fiddle stretches in favour of some playing on the Gretsch. Not my favourite track on the album, as bluegrass isn’t really my thing, but nonetheless a strong track and Setzer can sure make a banjo ring!

Far Noir East – A track that would be right at home on Setzer’s previous release: Songs From Lonely Avenue. The guitar led track is very much in the film noir style and a haunting guitar lead rings out over a quiet, possibly acoustic rhythm. I could very much see this  being film, advert material – perhaps just the effect its creator is after.

Intermission –  A much lighter guitar/ vibraphone duet really gives the mood of the album a lift after the haunting Far Noir East, I enjoy this track and while it perhaps wouldn’t stand out as the most amazing thing Brian has laid down, it has a nice tone and is a perfect lightener in this place in the album. A nod that the album form is still considered by some artists and they are not all just a bunch of tracks thrown down.

Go-Go Godzilla – The second of the stand-out rockabilly tracks on the album, Go-Go Godzilla has a meaner edge to it than Be-Bop-A-Lula. This is perhaps some of the hardest styled guitar Brian Setzer has laid down; the song hangs around a couple of central themes and delivers some strong, if not overly complex, guitar lines.

Lonesome Road – Once again a track selected to contrast the track before, this one is a much faster Jazzy style outing and again much lighter in tone to it’s predecessor. Some of the finger work reminds me a little of the Dirty Boogie, although it doesn’t swing as much as Brian’s big-band outings tend to. Once again a nice track, underpinned with some strong percussion from Noah Levy.

Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown – The track shows Brian’s travispicking and speedy finger work at its very best. Not needing any sort of accompaniment, Brian use all of his axe skills to lay down this fast moving piece that sounds incredibly layered for a one guitar solo outing. I’m not it hangs together as a track stunningly well, but the lack of background support really shows off the best of Brian’s tricks.

Hot Love– Another rockabilly styled outing, this time covered in an echo almost threatening to send the guitar behind the drums and bass but never quite knocking Setzer off of front and centre. This track has been very popular amongst Brian’s fans and is certainly one of the most complete tracks on the album, with good riffs, stunning guitar and Noah Levy and Johnny Hatton at their best in the rhythm department.

Pickpocket – This starts off sounding like it could well be  solo for either Too Hip, Gotta Go or Eighteen Miles To Memphis but it soon develops a life of its own; strongly aided by, the central returning rising and falling riff over some smart stop-start drumming. This perhaps shows Setzer’s guitar playing in one of its strongest environments for me, that sort of slightly laid back, almost jazzy but definitely rockabilly form which the performances of the two Stray Cat tracks on Rumble In Brixton typify for me. One of my faves on the album, alongside Be-Bop-A-Lula.

Overall I can truly enjoy this album. I certainly wouldn’t say it rates as one of my favourites in Brian Setzer’s output but the guitar and banjo playing is strong throughout and I think the whole album shows Setzer is feeling creative and not afraid of trying something new – good news for all of his fans! It might not make my top played but there are definitely several tracks on here I wouldn’t skip if they popped up on shuffle; however saying this does disservice to the fact that this album holds together well as a statement of Brian Setzer’s considerable instrumental talent.

Brian Setzer – Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL: 7/10

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