Like the lucha libre wrestlers who inspired it, Nashville’s Los Straitjackets has launched a high-flying comeback after being dealt a paralyzing blow that would have pinned lesser bands.
With co-founding guitarist Danny Amis (aka Daddy-O Grande) on the road to recovery from cancer, those masked marvels of instrumental rock have delivered one of the most diverse and polished albums in their 18-year career. Jet Set, released Tuesday on Yep Roc Records, is the band’s lucky 13th studio album and perhaps its best ever. Guitarist and co-founder Eddie Angel has been quoted as saying: “I think it’s remarkable that this far into our career, we could do something I’d consider our best work.”
Amis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, in mid-2010. “It took me out of commission for two years, even put me in a wheelchair for a while, but once I started recovering I began writing new songs like crazy and was able to record with the band again,” Amis says in a press release for Jet Set. “The godfather of Mexican surf” underwent a successful stem cell transplant in 2011, and he’s been pronounced well enough to play select dates on the band’s upcoming tour. It’s great to see Amis – one of surf rock’s longtime practitioners (he started with the Raybeats in 1980-82) – back in action.
Jet Set is a return to the insanely catchy riffs and high energy of the band’s early classics – The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets (1995), ¡Viva! Los Straitjackets (1996), and The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets (1999). On top of that, the band has harnessed its decades of combined experience dabbling in a dizzying array of different genres and filtered it through the tight, surf-guitar-driven format that makes the band one of the leading lights of both the 1990s revival and current new wave of instrumental surf rock.
Within the confines of the guitar-bass-drums format, the band – Amis, Angel, bassist Pete Curry, and drummer Jason “Teen Beat” Smay – seems to enjoy branching into as many genres as they can cram into 15 songs. When Amis fell ill, his shoes were ably filled by Greg Townson (aka Gregorio el Grande), who continues as a touring member and also a contributing songwriter on seven Jet Set tracks.
The band also got a lot of help from producer and longtime friend Janne Haavisto (former drummer of the late, great Finnish surf rock band Laika And The Cosmonauts), who helps give the album a modern surf sheen. It was recorded by bassist Curry at The Pow Wow Fun Room in Los Angeles. Haavisto pushed the band to emphasize melodic songs, and he contributed percussion via bongos, tambourines and shakers. He added more touches during mixing and mastering in Finland.
Another treat are the small but distinctive contributions by other friends, such as Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Horns from Conan O’Brien’s late-night TV show. The band is a favorite of O’Brien, who has featured them multiple times on his shows over the years. Haavisto brought in fellow Cosmonaut Matti Pitskinki to play organ, and Finnish actress/musician Irina Björklund to play musical saw and lay down the album’s only vocals.
But Jet Set is – at its heart – a tribute to the experience and skill of the core musicians. Beneath this expertise also lurks an off-kilter sense of humor that always shines through, making for fun and repeated listens. Remember, this is a band that has donned wrestling masks since its first gig, when Amis pulled them out of a bag he’d brought back from Mexico City. As Los Straitjackets stares down its 20th anniversary, its comforting to have both Amis and the band’s creative juices back in center ring.
We hope you buy the full album (preferably on vinyl or CD), either from your local independent retailer or from the Los Straitjackets store. But we’re also including a song-by-song review below as a guide for those who prefer buying individual songs.
LOS STRAITJACKETS – JET SET
1 – Crime Scene (Amis): The rare use of horns on a Los Straitjackets song is pulled off perfectly, courtesy of Conan O’Brien’s house band. They’re right up front in the mix, but also subtle and perfectly blend with the song’s cool, upbeat guitar riff. The song’s crime jazz vibe fits the title perfectly. Given the band’s history with the film Psycho Beach Party, this would be appropriate on the soundtrack of a new movie called Murder at Psycho Beach.
2 – Yeah Yeah Yeah (Amis-Angel-Curry-Townson-Willey): Classic Los Straitjackets, reminiscent of songs such as State Fair. The twangy guitar has a country feel, and the song evokes a serene sentimentality. Nice lead guitar break at the end.
3 – New Siberia (Amis): A seamless combination of Spaghetti Western surf and exotic guitar. It does indeed transport you to Siberia or a similarly foreign land. A great showcase for the guitars, with a classic surf riff carrying the song. A good example of the album’s excellent production, this has a perfect sound yet isn’t heavy handed. The tasteful tambourine that you hear at song’s end is likely producer Haavisto himself. One of the album’s high points.
4 – Aerostar (Angel): Perhaps the most commercial-sounding song on the album, this song features a poppy guitar riff that also harkens back to some of the band’s classic material. The lush organ helps paint a sweet and soothing picture, and the cool little retro drum breaks are a nice touch. Like it or not, this song is memorable and sticks in your head like an ear worm.
5 – Brooklyn Slide (Townson-Angel-Curry-Willey): The band veers into bluesier territory, with some classic soul also joining the party. Laid-back guitar teams with tastefully restrained drums to drive one of the most distinctive and original tunes on the album.
6 – Jet Set (Amis): The title track features the band’s signature upbeat country-western groove, with a cool interplay between the guitars. Despite the organ, there doesn’t seem to be as many layered sounds, resulting in a more straight-forward song.
7 – Low Tide (Amis): A slow ballad, another Los Straitjackets tradition, with a western desert feel. The musical saw provides a great effect that would be perfectly at home on a soundtrack to a sci-fi movie. This song even touches on exotica, with its peaceful and otherworldly vibe.
8 – Walking Down 3rd Street (Angel): A rollicking, happy-go-lucky song with upfront horns just as bold and brassy as any ska band. For variety, Angel adds tasteful little guitar break to provide a bluesy nuance.
9 – Bobsleddin’ (Townson-Angel-Curry-Willey): This 2-minute blast of classic ’60s surf features very fast-picking guitar and drums. It’s short and sweet with more of those catchy guitar riffs that stick in your head, plus a rockin’ Guitar Hero solo. Another highlight.
10 – Wrong Way Inn (Townson-Angel-Curry-Willey): An up-tempo, straight-up blues song with some rock ‘n’ roll flourishes. It reminds me of an old roadhouse song, and it’s one of the few Los Straitjackets songs that seems like it could benefit from some lead vocals.
11 – Space Mosquito (Townson-Angel-Curry-Willey): A very fun song, with wonderful effects that evoke a pesky mosquito. Stylistically, the band reaches back to old swing and jazz with wild drums and a fast-paced beat. Also a showcase for the band’s wry humor. Check out the video below.
12 – Sardinian Holiday (Amis): Los Straitjackets transform themselves into a hip 1960s lounge band in this song that features a catchy guitar riff and space-age feel. And the backing vocals by Björklund are a perfect tribute to Mexico’s Juan Garcia Esquivel, the king of space-age pop.
13 – Mr. Pink (Angel-Curry-Haavisto-Townson-Willey): A gritty blues riff leads into a more modern guitar rock tune that oddly seems like it doesn’t belong with the rest of the songs on this album. It’s well done, but it sounds more like Joe Satriani guitar-slinging than Los Straitjackets. One of the few misses, though it’s still definitely listenable.
14 – Pop Rocks & Coke (Angel-Curry-Townson-Willey): The album gets back on track with a rollicking garage rock song with a classic 1960s sound (again, very appropriate production) and shredding lead guitar. Retro garage rock fans will savor all 90 seconds of this burst of vintage sounds.
15 – Fur Sophia (Angel): A slow ballad with a simple arrangement and sweet melody that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the album. Unfortunately, it’s reminiscent of a generic Caribbean lounge tune, but its placement at the end of the playlist ensures it doesn’t detract from the overall impact of this wonderfully eclectic blend of songs.
Verdict: Buy this album now.
Essential tracks: Crime Scene, New Siberia, Bobsleddin’, Space Mosquito.
Also worth downloading: Yeah Yeah Yeah, Brooklyn Slide, Low Tide, Sardinian Holiday, Pop Rocks & Coke.
Skip: Mr. Pink, Fur Sophia.
With so many different genres and types of songs on display, it would be a shame to pigeonhole this release as simply “surf rock.” The band remains true to the Los Straitjackets style, yet shows off chops and musical knowledge that put most surf bands to shame.
Past coverage from The Atomic Grog
* Audio slideshow flashback: Los Straitjackets highlight a rockin’ 2009 Hukilau