Ever since their first steps into the realm of Christmas music with 2002’s Boogie Woogie Christmas, the music of The Brian Setzer Orchestra has set the tone for many a holiday celebration. Combining elements of swing, rockabilly, jump blues, and more, the collective managed to create a sound that was at once old and yet new, bringing that perfect slice of nostalgia and playfulness that fit the Christmas season so well over the course of four albums.
But with the release of a fifth, Rockin’ Rudolph, one has to question if the band has lost its swing. Oh, they sound just fine, with Setzer in good voice and his jumping band as hot as ever. But aside from these being different songs, the soundscape is pretty much the same, which may or may not be the point.
Setzer starts the set off with the seasonal favorite “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which totally works. His guitar work has always been stellar and he makes the best of the opportunity, swinging his way through with ease while his rocking horn section backs him ably. Unfortunately, they then take a step back with the following track, the Flintstones-inspired “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide.” Yes, it oozes with nostalgia but just feels a little too cutesy, trying a little too hard and is inexplicably given a second run as an extended track which doesn’t play any better than the first.
“Most Wonderful Time of Year” is faithfully rendered in Setzer style while “Rockabilly Rudolph” makes its case for being the best track on the album. Drawing from the familiar source material, Setzer injects it with a moody vibe that takes the track to a whole new place, his almost surf-rock guitar delivering new life to the old tale. With an Andrews Sisters-styled opening, “Here Comes Santa Claus” is a solid listen, with some smoking keyboard work yet the artist’s vocal feels a little weak on “Have Yourself a Little Christmas,” leaving listeners wanting.
An instrumental jam, “Swingin’ Joy” delivers on its promise, with a healthy dose of big band swing that lets all the components play in the spotlight while Setzer’s take on “Carol of the Bells” is good but not great, seeming to lack the punch that he might have brought to it in years past. Feeling like a pleasant step back in time, “Little Jack Frost” is a playful tune with healthy doses of warm female vocal harmonies, bright horns, and resonant piano as fans of Setzer’s sound will find plenty to love on his instrumental take of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” That track segues into another instrumental, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which is perhaps the most reworked of the classics here, showing some musical creativity.
But one does wish that a bit of that same creativity could have been applied to the rest of the record. While Setzer’s album isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination (these tracks still pack plenty of Christmas holiday spirit to get any party jumping), they also don’t signify any real growth in the band’s sound, feeling like they could have been B-sides to any of the seasonal records released before. And that’s the rub; with such a talented collective, we’re just bound to expect a little more. But, for those still interested, Setzer on cruise control still packs more punch than many with the pedal to the metal when it comes to the Christmas season.