November 25, 2015 The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Rockin’ Rudolph (Album Review)
Presents under brightly lit pines, spiked eggnog, cookies and milk waiting for Santa, stockings hung with care and carols sung with cheer are all familiar notions of the Yuletide. However, this Christmas season, Brian Setzer and his big-band orchestra are putting their spin on some holiday classics. On October 16th, 2015, Surfdog Records released Rockin’ Rudolph. It is billed as the first Christmas-themed studio album featuring three time Grammy winner Brian Setzer. The album’s release is timed to coincide with the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s (or BSO) twelfth Annual Christmas Rocks! Tour.
Regarding the music, Setzer said, “It’s been about 10 years since I made a Christmas record. (Christmas music) just seems to get more popular every year. They’re classic songs and you wonder after a couple records how many of them are left. Once you dig in you find, wow! I’ve haven’t done Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, you know. I’ve never done “Here Comes Santa Claus!'” Although this is The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s fifth Christmas album that is being released just five years after their last holiday record, Christmas Comes Alive!, this is the first ‘studio’ release in ten years. This distinction of studio versus live is important. There is an attraction for fans of The Brian Setzer Orchestra that enjoy their high-energy mixture of Jazz, Rockabilly and Swing performed before a live audience. Having to condense their sound into short bursts of power— the longest cut on the record has a miserly 4:17 playtime, with most in the sub three-minute range— leaves the listener wanting more.
The album opens with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” It reminds the listener of why The Brian Setzer Orchestra is held is such wide regard as it has that upbeat swinging sound that made Setzer’s Stray Cats so popular. Setzer’s voice is distinctive, as are his world-class guitar skills. This is arguably the best song on the album. Next up is the first of two versions of “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide”. Set to the music of the Flintstones television show from the 1960’s, it is musically what we would expect from Setzer’s orchestra. It is up-beat and technically perfect, but the Christmas-themed lyrics seem childish. It is a fun song that only needs to be included once to get the vibe. Both inclusions have musically perfect sax and trumpet solos, highlighting the talent available for Setzer to orchestrate.
Another well-known cover, “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” arranged for his big band follows. It is one of the shortest songs included and not that memorable. The upbeat, hard-driving Rockabilly guitar of “Rockabilly Rudolph” is one of the better songs on the album. More of this type of music would have improved the whole collection. The Rockabilly sound continues on the next track, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The song features a big stand-up bass beat with backup singers complimenting Setzer’s distinctive vocals. The tempo slows for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It is a nice arrangement, but Setzer’s voice seems to lack the range needed to pull off the crooning needed for this version. The horns pick up the speed with the first of several instrumental selections, “Swingin’ Joy.” This version of “Joy To The World” does indeed swing with the big horns of the orchestra shining throughout.
The next song,”Carol of the Bells” is another fine example of the talented musicians of The Brian Setzer Orchestra. Although it has more of a Jazz feel than the other songs on the album, Setzer’s guitar work again shows his virtuoso ability. The mostly instrumental “Little Jack Frost” is yet another song that fail to make any lasting impression. The lyrics sung by a duo of female backup singers highlight the fact that neither vocalist has a lead singer’s voice. This makes the words that are part of this song sound corny. Slow tempo instrumental versions of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” follow. Similar to “Swingin’ Joy,” they are musical excellent and would be the perfect background music to any holiday party. The final selection is the extended version of “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide.” Masterfully performed by well-practiced artists, the lyrics are just as trite as the first time the song appears. Including it again regulates the opening to filler in order extend the albums extremely short run-time.
Overall, the songs are familiar holiday staples arranged to feature the orchestra’s strengths, which is that full sound that make them a popular band to see live for an electrifying performance. Rockin’ Rudolph would provide the perfect ambient music for a get-together or simply playing while wrapping and opening presents. This twelve song collection—eleven if not counting the duplicate inclusion of “Yabba Dabba Yuletide”—is just what fans expect from Setzer. The sound is there, the music familiar, Setzer’s mastery of the guitar is showcased on several of the selections. While no new ground has been broken with these classic Christmas songs, it is still are an interesting listen to add to anyone’s holiday playlist. CrypticRock gives Rockin’ Rudolph 3.5 out of 5 stars.