The Phantom Tollbooth

The Dirty Boogie
Artist:  The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Label:  Interscope Records (1998)
Producer:  Peter Collins
Time:  13 tracks/49:40

The party is in full swing, friends. Pull on your brogues and saddle shoes and head for the dance floor. The Brian Setzer Orchestra is in the house and it's time to cut some rug with the Lindy and the Schmooze. Go, Daddy-O, go!

Fronting a big band with rock guitar was Setzer's brilliantly original idea--an idea beautifully captured on his last three albums as The Brian Setzer Orchestra. His former years as the Stray Cat's front man in the eighties have proven instrumental in his present ability to pen fifties-sounding rock and swing hybrids. His orchestra is the real deal--mostly experienced session players on breaks between soundtrack work like The Lion King. Sporting five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, two bass players, and a lone drummer in his band, Brian Setzer couples his crooning, raspy voice and retro, Gretsch guitars to create a veritable sock-hop's worth of big band sounds and reckless rock and rolling. Like his impressive 1996 album, Guitar Slinger, which beat the current batch of modern swingers to the punch, this new one takes his swing-injected rock-a-billy to an even more overt level of excitement and obvious homage.

Offering fewer Setzer originals than his last album, The Dirty Boogie is more like a tribute to the golden age, with a cluster of cover songs from the late fifties and early sixties. He only wrote six of the thirteen songs here, compared with nine out of twelve on the last album. Setzer's handpicked selections work seamlessly here with his own originals, however, giving this album greater continuity. The popular Gap commercial--complete with khaki-wearing, lindy-leaping, freeze-framing dancers--was inspirational. The national exposure of this classic tune has propelled Setzer's respectful take on Louis Prima's "Jump Jive an' Wail" onto the radio and up the Billboard charts. It's a snap-happy rendition of the oldie and the album's most radio-friendly single. On the version of Leiber and Stroller's "You're the Boss," originally made famous by Elvis and Ann-Margret, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani joins Setzer in an accessible yet spirited duet. Perhaps the best cover in the lot is Setzer's rollicking remake of his Stray Cat classic, "Rock this Town." Delivered here with horn-heavy bravado and an unruly guitar solo of Setzer's unmatched signature sizzle, this update is better than the original. Another of the borrowed highlights include a saucy rendition of Bobby Darin's 1962 single, "As Long As I'm Singin'," used here as the last track to bring this hopping party to a dizzy end. Setzer's own songs are virtually indistinguishable from the others, displaying his songwriting and guitar-playing gifts in this bygone genre. Although he could almost be right at home on the radio over half a century ago, we can be grateful he is our contemporary. The album opens with "This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof," which gets your fingers snapping and toes tapping right from the get go on a ride that barely lets up. Later, on the only track produced by Phil Ramone, "Hollywood Nocturne" further proves Setzer's songwriting talent. The vocal effects, lush orchestration, and overall Sinatra-esque vibe make this one of the album's most notable highlights and a rare laid-back moment amidst the more revved-up rockers.

The lyrics are mostly benign tales of chicks and cars, hep-cats, and hip dance moves. There are a few racier remarks, mostly in the form of mild sexual innuendos, like "The Dirty Boogie's" sly references to the horizontal mambo. Overall, it is PG, not R-rated fare. On the flip side, there's not much of substance here either. This musical tradition hales from a period before the rise of more introspective singer-songwriters, and Setzer has kept this tradition intact.  Tongue-in-cheek humor and clever anachronisms contribute to the overall wit. It's fun stuff played for charm and ambience rather than cerebral intake.

Although bound to be more commercially successful, this album is not quite as ground-breaking, genre-busting, or delightfully diverse as Guitar Slinger. Setzer played it safer here, capitalizing on the swing movement resurgence he helped engender to create a brash, upbeat album with more of a vintage focus.  Despite the modest creative shortcomings, The Dirty Boogie definitely offers a party full of pleasurable toe-tappin' fun. One of those rare albums with multi-generational appeal, younger folk with an infatuation for something fresh may be floored to find grandma kicking up some dust to these ditties. Why not join her in the jitterbug?

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (9/4/98)