Throughout his career, Brian Setzer has successfully led two bands that have explored, and expanded upon, specific areas of pre-'60s American music: the Stray Cats virtually created the rockabilly revival of the '80s and the Brian Setzer Orchestra mined and updated the big band swing and jump-boogie of the '40s. In both contexts, the prescient Setzer proved a winner, an inspired and knowledgeable craftsman armed with truckloads of sizzling, pinpointed guitar licks and terrific songs. On occasion he's chosen, with mixed results, to break out of those molds and piece together solo albums that extend his reach into more mainstream, albeit still retro-based areas of rock. His first, 1986's The Knife Feels Like Justice, was a left-field surprise that seemed to indicate that Setzer was primed to abandon, at least partially, his obsession with the past and to try his luck in the modern rock world. That didn't quite happen, as he returned repeatedly to the more familiar territory, but on 13 -- so named because it's his 13th studio album of new material -- Setzer once again branches out, and this time he's got the balance just right. 13 is stocked with 13 (of course) diverse tracks gliding easily from straight-ahead rock & roll (among the best: "Rocket Cathedrals," "Broken Down Piece of Junk" and the anthemic "We Are the Marauders," which declares that "American Idol is a bunch of crap") to slick instrumental blues ("Mini Bar Blues"). That doesn't mean he leaves the vintage Americana behind, but one of the album's strongest tunes, the hilarious "Really Rockabilly" (which includes Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom) leaves no doubt that Setzer's fed up with the many poseurs who've co-opted and diluted the style without having much of a clue about its origins or rebel spirit. Just to show them how it's really done, he unleashes a series of short-burst licks that provide a crash course in rockabilly guitar. "Don't Say You Love Me" crosses harmonic pop/rock with smooth rockabilly economy, and "When Hepcat Gets the Blues" walks the tightrope between Stray Cats and BSO territory. But although several songs touch on familiar ground, 13 is not intended to be, not does it feel like, a rockabilly or swing album. The opening track, the crunching "Drugs and Alcohol (Bullet Holes)" (it's anything but an endorsement of said substances) takes a look at the hard life of a high-schooler who's been through way too much, while "Everybody's Up to Somethin'," with its stacked Southern rock-style guitars, casts just about everyone into the role of no-goodnik. Setzer closes out 13 with the mostly acoustic "The Hennepin Avenue Bridge," something that might have felt at home in the early-'60s folk revival. Gotta keep 'em guessing, after all.
AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin