Having evidenced grand stylistic ambition on his two extracurricular solo albums (The Knife Feels Like Justice is a nifty and accomplished grab-bag; Live Nude Guitars is a sleazy must-to-avoid), Long Island singer/guitarist Brian Setzer put down the Stray Cats in the early ’90s and let his musical dreams blossom, ambitiously reversing into a ’40s future of swing, crooner pop and jump blues. Setting his wayback machine for the pre-rock era when volume was a function of orchestra size not amplification, Setzer assembled a brassy big band (the 17-strong company first toured, complete with monogrammed music stands, in ’93) and set about recording The Brian Setzer Orchestra, an offbeat, entertaining album of standards and his typically seamless original recreations.
Setzer’s non-parochial sensibilities allow him to navigate hairpin turns, directing the company from a Sinatra-esque creation like “September Skies” (a new song your grandmother will swear she remembers from the war) into a theatrical rendition of Vince Taylor’s rocking “Brand New Cadillac,” a lavish Al Jolson toe-tapper (“There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder”) into a jazzed-up “Route 66,” without causing any calamitous damage. As Carl Perkins’ “Your True Love” (1957) segues into “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (a 1940 song also done by Bobby Darin), Setzer uses his past identity and unabashedly dated arrangements to leapfrog decades and make the transitions slide like a trombone. While Setzer is unlikely to challenge Mel Tormé in the smoothie stakes, the pompadoured tattoo canvas handles the diverse material with his usual cocky aplomb and skill and plays tons of superlative — if gratuitously flashy and sometimes ill-placed — guitar.
With Phil Ramone producing and Joe Strummer contributing the lyrics to “Ghost Radio” and “Sammy Davis City,” Guitar Slinger improves substantially on the debut. Brassier and bolder, with fewer ballads and more of a rock’n’roll attack at its core, the album includes a version of the Stray Cats’ old “Rumble in Brighton” and a not-quite-dramatic enough take on 1962’s “Town Without Pity” as well as such time-travel originals as “Hey, Louis Prima” and “The Man With the Magic Touch,” a tribute to Count Basie. In the hands of an artist with less skill, knowledge or devotion to his musical ideals, this kind of endeavor could be a musty, laughable show-and-tell; with Setzer waving the magic wand, Guitar Slinger trains a telescope at long-gone sounds and projects them into the present with imagination and excitement.
The Ultimate Collection is a two-CD live album taken from a couple of shows. The 31 selections come from the Stray Cats catalogue (two renditions of “Rock This Town,” “Rumble in Brighton”), Setzer’s solo career (“Gene and Eddie,” “This Cat’s on a Hot Tin Roof”) and elsewhere (“Hawaii Five-O,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” “Brand New Cadillac”).