Brian Setzer turns his orchestra to grittier themes on album inspired by film-noir

Ever since former Stray Cat and perpetual rockabilly revivalist Brian Setzer got himself mixed up with the small army of horn players that make up his eponymous orchestra, he’s applied his considerable talents to a range of projects, some inspired, others ill conceived.

For every “The Dirty Boogie,” his zeitgeist-capturing 1998 swing-abilly triumph, there’s been an unfortunate misstep, such as his decision, two years later, to let his trumpet player rap on a remake of Glenn Miller’s instrumental classic “In the Mood.” Then there was 2007’s “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out,” an album on which he and the big band took on classical music, never stopping to ask, “Just because we can, does that mean we should?”

“Songs from a Lonely Avenue” (Surf Dog), the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s latest, is loosely inspired by’ the film-noir flicks of the 1940s and ’50s — movies that, with their jaded detectives, luckless protagonists, double-crossing crooks and femme fatales, spoke to the anxiety of the post-World War II years. The films don’t feature much in the way of on-screen sex or violence — strict production codes saw to that — but the best ones are infused with a palpable tension and fatalistic sense of dread.

The same can’t be said for Setzer’s latest batch of songs, though the singer and virtuoso guitarist has never really been known for writing dark or brooding music. Such tunes as “Trouble Train” and “Dead Man Incorporated” are as bright and brassy as anything on “The Dirty Boogie,” and the latter is very much modeled on the Orchestra’s 2002 version of the Stray Cats’ “Rumble in Brighton.” Lyrically, at least, Setzer gets into character, and on “My Baby Don’t Love Me Blues” and “Kiss Me Deadly,” he sounds sufficiently downtrodden, even if his lady has merely broken his heart, not made off with his half of the heist money.

Despite an arranging assist from venerable film and television composer Frank Comstock, “Songs from a Lonely Avenue” is most notable for Setzer’s trademark rockabilly riffs — drag-racing runs of notes like the one that propels “Passion of the Night.” It’s finger-snapping stuff, particularly when the upright bass is thumping away in the background, and even if the mood is far more Sammy and Sinatra than Bogey and Bacall, Setzer sells his swanky Vegas retro kitsch with guileless charm and genuine enthusiasm.

He’s too nice for the noir world, but unlike those who dwell in its shadows, he makes it out alive.

— Text by Kenneth Partridge, photo by Colin Stark

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