By Michael Henningsen
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The Muffs Happy Birthday to Me (Reprise)
The same mentality that was the catalyst for The Muffs' formation back in 1991 is the same inspiration that sends them out swinging on their latest disc. Vocalist/guitarist Kim Shattuck shovels out her Ramones-inflected lyrics with all the confidence of Don King. And on this, The Muffs' third full-length, Shattuck echoes more Exenne than ever before, pushing the record toward a near perfect balance of punk rock trademarks, pop sensibility and sheer musical artistry.
Partnered once again with founding bassist/vocalist Ronnie Barnett and sophomore drummer Roy McDonald, Shattuck sounds continually more comfortable in her role as primary songwriter (she penned 'em all on this one) and frontwoman. The band's gradual maturity lends a quality to their latest record that makes the uncontrollable urge to play air guitar and jump on the bed seem like the normal thing to do. Maybe it is. I know I'd feel better about myself if it were.
The X-ishness of songs like "Outer Space" and "Nothing" work perfectly in tandem with Ramones-inspired numbers such as "Is It All Okay?" and "All Blue Baby" to create the most well-rounded, carefully fleshed-out Muffs record to date. There's simply not a boring moment on the record. The 15 songs that comprise Happy Birthday to Me are positioned to complement each other--never too hard, never too soft, always just right.
Since their self-titled debut in 1993 and 1995's Blonder and Blonder, The Muffs have written the book on pop-punk, sorta like one of those books-on-tape motivational seminars that have variously inspired millions of people to make stupid investments, learn foreign languages they'll never use and embrace their inner red-headed stepchildren. Only The Muffs have used their inspired motivational techniques to not-so-quietly influence a bevy of current bands while making the world safe for punk rock. Happy Birthday to Me is their latest breakthrough. And it just might change your life forever.
Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys Feelin' Kinda Lucky (Hightone Records)
While there may not be anything quite as satisfying as settling in to hear an evening of live rockabilly provided by Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys, their third Hightone release, Feelin' Kinda Lucky, comes pretty damned close. This is bowtie rockabilly--loaded with Western swing, steel guitar and vintage vamps. Big Sandy (Robert Williams in real life) has written a fine batch--14 in all--of songs for this effort, all of them taken from the mold that's established the Fly-Rite Boys sound as the pinnacle of traditional rockabilly.
Listening to Feelin' Kinda Lucky is like taking a trip into the past, to a forgotten era adorned with poodle skirts, pleasant young men and chaperoned Saturday night sock hops. Of course, the '50s rockabilly theme can be overdone and cheesed out all too easily (and all too frequently), but Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys have the music in their blood. It flows through their veins, feeds their cells and pours out of their instruments as naturally as if 1997 was 1952 all over again.
Sandy fronts the band with an acoustic guitar and a voice steeped in the past. Feelin' Kinda Lucky hinges, though, on Lee Jeffriess' phenomenal steel guitar work, lacing each song with expertly crafted solos and bridge passages. Jeffriess uses his instrument to back Sandy's vocals and punctuate each song's various sections. "What's It To Ya?" is the perfect example of this cooperative playing, turning most of the songs on this record into elaborate compositions. And, as always, guitarist Ashley Kingman reaches deep into his back of riffs and tricks, placing them perfectly alongside Sandy's rhythmic strumming and Jeffriess' shimmering slide work.
More Hank Williams than Ronnie Dawson, Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys continue here on their dance crusade. Feelin' Kinda Lucky is just the sort of record you'd expect from the crown gentleman of rockabilly swing.
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