Review Summary: Modern classic rock? As oxymoronic as it sounds, Setzer might have stumbled across something with '13'
Brian Setzer will be a familiar name to modern fans of rockabilly, psychobilly and even the swing revival scene but as a mainstream artist he's perceived as unfashionable; a label he's been happy to adopt, playing music he likes without pressure of impressing anyone.
His latest album, '13', is a sign from Setzer that, at 48, he's evolving as a songwriter and musician. It'd be unfair to say he's been narrow-minded in the past, but this album is something of a departure from the rockabilly and swing he's been playing for nearly 30 years. And he's done well. Many bands attempts at evolving are often hindered by a lack of direction, but 28 years in the business has given Setzer many good ideas to embrace, whilst still keeping the tried and tested components which long-time fans expect.
The tasty guitar licks are still there, ("Drugs and Alcohol (Bullet Holes)" confirms this within seconds of pressing 'play') as you'd expect from such a talented musician, and the double bass is around for the duration, but as was hinted at in Setzer's last record of new material, 2003's 'Nitro Burnin' Funny Daddy', the tone of the instruments is not as important as the tunes they play. Setzer's guitar pumps out riffs, as in "Everybody's Up To Somethin'" and "Take A Chance On Love", that Aerosmith
would be proud to call their own.
Much of the most impressive musicianship occurs during the most experimental tracks. "Mini Bar Blues" is a fascinating 2-minute guitar solo with only light drum accompaniment; think "Eruption" by Van Halen, only undistorted, bouncy and less obnoxious. "We Are The Marauders", written by Setzer for the psychobilly band The Marauders
, if sped up and distorted, would have been a fantastic punk rock song. However, great use of the slap bass and some tom-heavy drumming gives the track an arrogant swagger that really complements the lyrical content.
Disappointingly, the one true rockabilly song, inventively titled "Really Rockabilly", is poorly executed, and, if vocals aren't your thing, the music is tedious and even one of Setzer's normally excellent guitar solos drags on. He wrote better songs in the '80s, and should've done better on this track.
As you'd expect from an artist that takes such a strong musical image from the 1950s rockabilly scene, the lyrical tone of the album is centred on cars, girls and generally being an outcast from society. Nothing new there then, he's been doing that since 1979 with the Stray Cats.
You do, as the album progresses, get the impression that Setzer is a little angry, and perhaps has a chip on his shoulder. "Everybody's Up To Somethin'" is a 'guilty-til-proven-innocent' rocker that suspects the whole world of criminal activity, "We Are The Marauders" takes a stab at the mainstream media and "Really Rockabilly" has a gripe with those who Setzer influenced with the Stray Cats in the '80s, accusing such artists of bastardising the raw, organic scene that he clearly has such a fondness for.
To say the album's tone has only one direction, though, would be unfair on Setzer. The storytelling of "The Hennepin Avenue Bridge" is a tribute to Setzer's ability to draw influence from a genre and make it his own; in this case bouncy folk-rock. The humorous tale of Father Hennepin and his bizarre death, backed by banjo and tuba, wouldn't be out of place in James Taylor
's work, such is the irreverence and unpredictability of the story.
As a whole, there is little diversity between many of the tracks. Aside from the tracks "Mini Bar Blues" and "The Hennepin Avenue Bridge" many of the tracks are difficult to discern between ("Broken Down Piece Of Junk" and "Back Streets Of Tokyo" for starters), which is a letdown, because Setzer is capable of more creativity than he's letting on here. That said, it’s streets ahead of the so-called artistic creativity that modern scene-rock bands have to show off.
In the 1970s, alongside the likes of Status Quo and AC/DC, this album would have become an instant classic. With '13', Setzer has essentially taken the '50s sound he's been exploring since he's been a solo artist and given it the hard rock edge it's been crying out for. Fans of classic rock, rockabilly and even punk should give this album a listen. You'll be surprised how much nothing can change.