No matter how many groups have gone out to play in the past and never returned, surf is always up for a few twang-crazed instrumental quartets dead set on revisiting the mythical beach to recreate the crisp, bracing sounds of early-’60s string-slingers like Dick Dale, Duane Eddy and the Ventures. Hidden behind garish wrestling masks and a linguistically misleading name, this Nashville quartet is powered by guitarists/songwriters Eddie Angel and Danny Amis, whose lengthy career shooting the rock’n’roll curl began in Minneapolis, where he led the Overtones for one great vocal 45, “Red Checker Wagon,” and wound its way, in the early ’80s, through New York’s Raybeats (whose “The Calhoun Surf” gets covered on The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets) and a 1983 solo EP (Whiplash!) before making that big turn south.
On a scale of one to kowabunga, Los Straitjackets’ debut album is mighty nifty, a collection of salty reverb-drenched originals with colorful titles like “Gatecrusher,” “Jetty Motel,” “Caveman” and “Tailspin.” Even if they add nothing new to the genre (though Angel’s memorable “University Blvd.” has the makings of a twang repertoire standard), Los Straitjackets uphold its great traditions in jubilantly timeless fashion.
¡Viva! Los Straitjackets offers more clean, classic guitar sounds — the songs mostly adhere to the limited lexicon of early instrumental surf-rock. The live tracks on ¡Damas y Caballeros! aren’t exactly required listening, but do radiate a sense of sloppy fun. The rowdy 60-minute set features some classic surf cover tunes, but also the cleverly arranged “Love Theme” from Titanic (think Joe Meek’s “Telstar”) and a reverent version of piano legend Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date.” Of course, without benefit of the band’s stage schtick — the wrestling masks, corny choreography, etc. — the Straitjackets’ live experience is frustratingly incomplete. The inessential novelty of Sing Along With has Los Straitjackets serving as competent sidemen, laying down generic rockabilly-style backing for such singers as Raul Malo, Big Sandy, Nick Lowe and Exene Cervenka.
Los Straitjackets have made a cottage industry of cheeky musical commentary on the interchangeability of early rock music. They rarely pass up an opportunity to exploit the versatility of a juicy reference from the surf-rock canon — either as an attention-grabbing intro or the basis for a broader arrangement in-joke. There are plenty of the latter on Tis The Season, along with the expected rockin holiday cheer, of course. On “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the backing rhythms and proto-surf tremolo slides of the Chantays’ “Pipeline” perfectly accommodate the traditional melody. Pushing it further, they insert the loopy keyboard solo from “Runaway.” There’s also a knee-slapping two-song tribute to Latin-rock, grafting the intro to “La Bamba” onto a hilariously cheesy instrumental version of Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” And the opening chords of “Tequila” preface a peppy Latinized version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The mix-n-match-happy Straitjackets go on to demonstrate that the famous rhythm intro to “Walk Don’t Run” makes a perfectly nifty harmonic backdrop for “Sleigh Ride.”
Unlike surf-revisionists Man or Astro-Man? and the Mermen, Los Straitjackets have always reveled in the genre’s limitations. So it’s surprising that Supersonic Guitars in 3-D pushes beyond the clever (but obvious) rewrites of pre-Beatles instrumental standards — all the way to the mid-’60s. The band makes more liberal use of swamp-thick fuzztones, as on the bottom-heavy “Squid,” the galumphing dinosaur-plod of “Time Bomb” and the spook-fest of “Tarantula.” One can easily imagine the group stumbling upon the Ventures’ raucous Live in Japan 65 recordings in a garage, or the monster riff from “Satisfaction,” for the first time. Beyond the usual tongue-in-cheek rip-off artistry, they embrace the Shadows on the atmospheric, baritone guitar-driven “Midnight in Salerno,” while “Isn’t Love Grand” could be an instrumental cousin of “Please Please Me,” led by a graceful open-string guitar hook and an unusually extended main melody line. And the spy-evoking melodic tag-line of “Giggle Water” sounds more like ’66 Swinging London than ’62 South Bay beach party. All in all, the album suggests that Los Straitjackets have become more confident composers and arrangers, and less directly dependent on the same old handful of influences.