Brian Setzer has made a career of bucking trends, going against the grain, ignoring popular culture, and blowing people away with his innovative work. As a teenager, Setzer drew inspiration from 50’s rockabilly, fused it with new wave punk, and created a worldwide phenomenon with his band Stray Cats. Always pushing the boundaries, he then created the 18-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra, sold millions of albums, won three Grammys, redefined Christmas music, and toured the planet many times over. He is one of the world’s most dynamic and respected guitarists and has a best-selling, extensive line of elite Gretsch signature model guitars bearing his name to prove it.
Setzer just completed his new record entitled Songs From Lonely Avenue. The album features 13 new original songs all written by Setzer. Nine of the tracks feature orchestrations by the legendary Frank Comstock (Doris Day, Sonny Dunham, Benny Carter, Judy Garland, not to mention the Rocky & Bullwinkle theme!). Inspired by the attitude and tension of the film noir soundtracks from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, Setzer set out to create songs that carry a classic cinematic mood that’s missing from today’s musical landscape. With a propulsive rhythm, an ominous minor key, wicked good instrumental solos and the familiar character of the Devil up to his old tricks, the opening track “Trouble Train” sets the mood for the whole album. Throughout the rest of the album, thugs prowl the street, young couples dance the night away in New York, hearts are broken, and lives are taken, all over pitch-perfect melodies and arrangements. Sit back, close your eyes, and allow yourself to be taken on a journey of crime, passion, heartbreak, and torment on the seedier side of town.
This movie opens in black and white …
It’s late one cold December night. The city sleeps, but legendary guitarist, singer and pioneering bandleader Brian Setzer has opened his eyes. Something of whatever he was dreaming lingers and leads him to get up, turn on an old Sears cassette recorder, pick up his guitar, lay down a few snippets of ideas, grab a pen, scratch some words on a piece of paper … and then fall back into bed.
As it was, Setzer was puzzled by the scene that greeted him the next morning. He didn’t remember scribbling those lines that stared up at him from his coffee table. But when he pushed Play and heard what he’d laid down on that midnight tape, the spark of invention, long dark, flashed back to life – and with that, his most ambitious and evocative project in years was underway. Those first notes, those shards of lyric, marked the birth of “Passion of the Night,” the first of the 13 original tracks he would write and lay down for Songs From Lonely Avenue. The rest followed quickly: “Dimes in the Jar,” “Love Partners in Crime,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” boom, boom, boom, each one bursting to life in spurts of lyric and riff at any and all hours of the day and night. Looking back, Setzer is still mystified by it all. “I can’t really explain it,” he insists. “Just when I think I might never write another song, the words and music come into my head and won’t stop. Once I have a focus, the songs start coming to me real easily. It’s as if the dam’s been broken and the ideas start flowing.”
But a theme wove through this stream-of-conscious creativity. The snaky beat and saloon croon of “King of the Whole Damn World,” the finger-snap jive of “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy,” the smoky crawl and roadhouse guitar of “My Baby Don’t Love Me Blues,” the ear-opening flamenco-flavored virtuosity of “Elena,” the sly genre juggling of “Mr. Jazzer Goes Surfin’” and “Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin’” – every moment of every track beams like a pinpoint spot into the darkness of a film noir classic, casting new shadows even as it brings Setzer’s extraordinary instrumental and vocal gifts into the light.
That light transforms this movie from black and white into spectacular splashes of color, illuminated by some of the most electrifying, sophisticated and yet emotionally raw horn charts being written anywhere today. As Setzer saw it, there was only one arranger up to the challenge of evoking the big-band scores of half a century ago in a language that would connect immediately with the contemporary listener – and that was Frank Comstock, with whom Brian had worked previously on his Wolfgang’s Big Night Out album.
“Frank is the only one left,” Setzer insists of his collaborator, whose credits include music for the TV series Adam 12, Dragnet and Rocky & Bullwinkle, along with big-band masterpieces by Les Brown, Benny Carter, Stan Kenton and other giants of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. “He helped invent this sound and, at 87 years old, he’s still got it.”
And so does the widening world of Setzer fans, from those who slammed to the Stray Cats in British clubs years ago to families who flocked last Christmas to the BSO’s annual holiday shows. All of these diverse audiences meet on Lonely Avenue – a place that, thanks to Setzer, is lonely no more.