Just what the world needs: another pretty rock 'n' roll street poet wrestling with the essence of the American experience. Brian Setzer, in his first solo recording sans the Stray Cats, wants desperately to say something serious about life in these United States, perhaps to shake the frivolous poseur image of his old band. But a lot of people would say that a frivolous poseur is preferable to a pretentious one.

It's not all Setzer's fault. Anyone who comes along nowadays with dirt under hisfingernails pleading a case for Middle America is bound to be accused of being a populist for popularity's sake, no matter how honest and heartfelt. But Setzer sets himself up as a fairly easy target. No matter how much you like Springsteen and/or Mellencamp and/or Seger, do you really want to hear a song at this point with lines like: "There once was a time you could vote for a man/Who wouldn't try and stick a gun in your hand/So cut out all your talkin'/And make love with me through the night. . ."?

Try as he might to mix cynical patriotism and romanticism in just the right dose, Setzer clearly isn't cut out for this stuff. When he attempts to write from a working-man-type's point of view in "Three Guys," it's supposed to be affectionately colloquial but comes off as embarrassingly condescending. If he makes a poor excuse for a redneck there, he's even less convincing as a Mexican in "Maria" and "Aztec."

Such misfired calculation is doubly unfortunate because "Knife" is far from a complete write-off. Country and rockabilly elements are incorporated into the mainstream pop-rock sound in a very clever and commercial way, which purists will of course despise. And Setzer's singing has a smooth and genuinely lovely timbre not apparent in his earlier growlings about dancing with underage girls.

What's missing is the passion of conviction that would make his preoccupation with the American thang seem more than just this month's pop platitude. Setzer has the voice, the looks and the hooks to have a fruitful recording career for many years to come, but when he picks up the sword of significance, the knife feels like plastic.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World