Brian Setzer has enjoyed a 20-year career as pop music's most consistent champion of rockabilly, first as the leader of the Stray Cats in the 80s, followed by solo stints, and a then by a resurgence in popularity in the late '90s fronting a swing orchestra. Setzer's latest incarnation is a return to a trio, named the Brian Setzer '68 Comeback Special. If the name represents homage to Elvis, the trio's disc, Ignition!, represents a return to purist rockabilly. Unlike the outings fronting his swing orchestra, there are no horns or swing standards on this disc. In fact, the absence of any covers is a departure for Setzer. Except for the traditional Spanish instrumental "Malagueña," Setzer writes all songs with help from collaborator Mike Himelstein. Joe Strummer of the Clash, who has worked with Setzer in the past, contributes to "Who Would Love This Car But Me." As expected, the songs are populated with gum-cracking gals with fast engines, hot rod's, guitars, and late-night regrets. At first listen, the disc seems sparse compared with the manic swing of Setzer's orchestra and his crooning falsetto standards. But the more you listen to Ignition!, the more it lights a rockabilly fire. Setzer has truly returned to his roots and produces an amazingly rich sound with the trio. Snappy snares and standup bass buoy his revving guitar and smoky vocals. "Hell Bent" is an atmospheric ode to Johnny Cash's hell-bent drifters. "8-Track" is gleefully country, with rollicking twangy guitars and yodeling. Rave-ups like "5 Years, 4 Months, 3 Days," "Santa Rosa Rita," and "Get 'Em on the Ropes" continue Setzer's mission to not just preserve rockabilly, but to keep it alive as a fresh form of music. His guitar playing is effortless and joyful. At times, the quaint lyrics lose their novelty, but the passion and love of the music is so apparent the lyrics are secondary.
by Theresa E. LaVeck