Brian Setzer has always been a bit of an old soul. He got his big break in the early 1980s as the frontman of a group called the Stray Cats, which gained popularity as a rockabilly revival band. With the music industry having moved on from its Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly days three decades earlier, their music was a nostalgic kick that helped to revitalize the genre. After four years with the group, Setzer began to pursue a career as a solo artist, releasing The Knife Feels Like Justice in 1986, which marked a shift towards a more roots rock type of sound. Then, in 1990, the Brian Setzer Orchestra was formed. As a 17-piece ensemble with a full trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and rhythm section, it was easily his most ambitious project yet. Despite early struggles to keep the extensive group financially supported, they soon signed with Interscope Records and released their landmark album The Dirty Boogie in 1998. The release broke through into the top ten on the US charts, and quickly came to define the retro swing revival throughout the next decade.
Brian Setzer doesn’t just echo the voices of swing band stars like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington from ages past; he redefines the genre and makes it his own. As the frontman, main vocalist, and guitarist, Setzer commands his handpicked troupe of musicians with gusto. The energy captured in the recordings on The Dirty Boogie are absolutely unreal. By doing nothing more than closing your eyes, you can be transported to the hottest swingin’ jazz club of the ’40s. With a voice that channels equal parts Presley and Sinatra, he is versatile enough to either bring the house down with a fast, raunchy number or lull them to sleep with sweet, dulcet tones.
Every authentic trademark of classic swing music is represented on this album. Every traditional chord progression that comes to mind, every romantically crooning horn melody – it’s all there. Eight of the thirteen tracks on The Dirty Boogie are covers of classic tunes from the Great American Songbook, including one rendition of the song “Rock This Town,” previously written by Setzer for the Stray Cats, his old rockabilly outfit. If you find yourself now doubting the originality of this record, however, then rest easy. From the first downbeat of “This Cat’s On a Hot Tin Roof,” the listener is immediately hooked on a thrilling roller coaster ride of musical debauchery.
Most swing revival bands before the Brian Setzer Orchestra generally consisted of a rock and roll rhythm section supporting a small, three- or four-piece horn section. Although groups like these went a long way towards reintegrating the style into popular music repertoire, it wasn’t until Setzer showed up with his monstrous ensemble, which much more closely matched the size of the traditional swing band, that the movement truly reached a wide audience. Today, discussion between the genre’s enthusiasts clearly points towards The Dirty Boogie as a major turning point.
Of course, Setzer had one more secret weapon hidden in his cloak – his rockabilly background. By pulling influence from the music he grew up with and implemented during his stint with the Stray Cats, he’s been able to combine the best of two worlds. The fusion of rockabilly and swing music into a revitalized style with a modern edge is a work of pure genius. The strength of the production on this record is incredible, yet it could be found easily at home with the top hits of the early twentieth century in America.
Here lies one of the most significant contributors to the album’s success: it exists simultaneously in two different decades, separated by a generation of advancement in the music culture. Regardless of time period, The Dirty Boogie commands respect from all of its listeners, both young and old. In my experience, music that can hold its own as a timeless classic throughout many years of cultural evolution deserves the full attention of my ear. I highly suggest that you get yourself a copy of this record and do the same.