Brian Setzer is one of those wild geniuses who keeps the Earth properly spinning on its axis – a consistent institution who you can count on while pretty much everything else comes and goes. If nothing else, he might be saving American history from the scorch of its own warped magnifying glass memory. We’ve screwed up the 50’s – reduced it into one giant goof cartoon of crummy over-fattening food, leather jackets and endless sock hops. And the 80’s showed up more or less mangled on arrival. But Brian Setzer, a punk rocker grinning across a gorgeous Gretsch splashed through the neon of the 80’s scene with a sound that channeled the earliest primal yelps of rock n’ roll. Then in the 90's when every guy within a fedora’s throw of Hollywood wanted to form a swing band, Setzer massed a bloody orchestra and launched a blistering assault on all the zoot-suited mannequins cruising the scene. With an astonishing consistency and quality of output, an honest reverence for the American musical tradition and an idiosyncratic swagger that is itself the kind of brand that defies all contrivance, Brian’s on that short list alongside guys like Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, or, hell, Hendrix who inhabit their own crazy little islands where the waves around them may change direction but the guitar licks are scorching, the drinks stay cold and the circle remains unbroken.
Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL! is another elegant affirmation of Setzer’s legacy and a beautiful betrayal of what we tend to expect from guitar records. Betrayal? Ok, look let’s admit something. Even people who buy guitar records made by guys who make guitar records for people who buy guitar records know that guitar records are often not all that much fun when you boil them down. Usually there’s a certain quota of “see, I can do this” fretboard pyrotechnics, a few “exercise in getting a certain guitar tone” kinds of exotic moves and then the inevitably boring retread of some song snatched from a different genre. As a guitarist, Setzer has basically nothing whatsoever to prove, so Instru-MENTAL! skips all of those games. Instead, it’s a richly lyrical spin through songs where Setzer (as usual) makes complex guitar figures sound organic with a delivery that’s alarmingly effortless. If anything, its instrumental-ness was something that revealed itself along the way. “I didn’t start writing an instrumental record per se,” Setzer says. “As a matter of fact I wrote 7 songs with lyrics and then all of a sudden I just took a turn and started fooling around with ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ except without any vocals. I just started playing melody chords and thought, ‘wow, this is pretty cool! So the direction turned about halfway through my writing. I had never done an instrumental record, but I thought, well, now’s the time!”
The result is a record that feels like a Sunday afternoon with one of the world’s best players of any given instrument fumbling around the living room, picking up a dazzling vintage ’63 D’Angelico acoustic guitar, a Scruggs banjo or a signature Gretsch and with a quick knot of knuckle-work chiming out one gorgeous piece after another. There are charming covers in “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Cherokee” alongside ripping originals like “Go-Go Godzilla.” As always, it’s the kind of stuff that he can hurtle outward as far as the room allows – music that’s equally at home in the low fog of a smoky jazz club, the chandelier pomp of a big city ball-room or the crisp zing of a festival night sky air. It’s music made with real love by a guy who just can’t help but grab a guitar.
Taken as a whole, Instru-MENTAL! is a kind of a hot quickie Cliff Notes on the thing that is the Brian Setzer canon. There’s jazz without pretension, country without cowshit, swing without poses, an infusion of blues that is deeply honest and the most classic form of rock n’ roll that in Brian’s hands feels as fresh and vital as the day those other genres slopped it into being. Some of Setzer’s secret is his inherent understanding of the deep soul-level link between Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Joe Strummer, Jimmy Page, Cliff Gallup, Son House, Chet Atkins, Elvis Perkins, Elvis Costello, Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Johnny Marr and Johnny Rotten. Some of Setzer’s magic is the fact that he’s the guitar-toting lightning rod who soaked all that in and shoots it back at us in dazzling bolts that carry his own unique signature in every note. He’s Brian Setzer, he plays a mean hot crazy pretty guitar, and that, thank God, will never change.