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Published: 2013/07/09
by Brian Robbins

The Katmen
The Katmen Cometh

Decca Records

It would be easy to label The Katmen as this time around’s version of The Stray Cats (especially with Stray Cat Slim Jim Phantom standing –literally – behind The Katmen’s stripped-down drum kit) but doing so would be the lazy man’s way out. Where The Stray Cats roared onto the scene in 1980, taking listeners back in time with an authentic greaser-rockabilly-punk vibe and cool chops, The Katmen manage the double-whammy of making some of that same backwards time travel, grabbing an armload of that ducktailed-and-reverbed scene, and then shooting back to apply it in all sorts of scenarios: a little pop here; a little R&B here; a shimmer of jazz over here – and a whole lotta rock ‘n’ roll everywhere. Their new The Katmen Cometh is a cool, grin-generating, feel-good album – both familiar- and fresh-sounding. Grab your baby: this is fun stuff.

Phantom – a master of getting a BIG drum sound out of the bare essentials – is joined on The Katmen Cometh by bassist Al Gare, who doles out everything from doghouse bass romps up the neck to James Jamerson-style grooves. While the trio setting requires all hands on deck to keep things full-sounding, Gare is a tasteful player who knows just how much to apply and when to apply it.

Out front is guitarist/vocalist Darrel Higham, leading the charge with a picking style that defines what The Katmen are all about: vintage rockabilly tone that can detour to Antone’s or the Fillmore or The Blue Note at the drop of a hat. Add to that a damn good set of pipes and you’ve got the makings of a good time.

The Katmen take the album’s door right off the hinges with a killer cover of The Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down”: all the original’s tension and drama laced with Higham’s wild-assed guitar quotes from “The Sailor’s Hornpipe” on the turnarounds between verses. The result is like a big ol’ cartoon landing feet-first between your ears: just when you think the end is near, The Katmen spin the thing around with a goofy grin and slam the pedal to the floor. It’s only going to take three minutes flat and by the time the tune’s roaring rave-up outro lurches to a sweat-soaked halt, there’s no question about it: these crazy bastards can play.

From there, the dust never has a chance to settle: “We Need Elvis Back” is textbook rockabilly snap and snarl with Phantom and Gare slamming down the big beat while Higham doles out everything from Brylcreemed twang to cascading jazzbo runs up and down the fretboard. The bass and drums propelling “When The Drinks Dried Up” are booming down Beale Street with twin cherry bombs on a flathead V-8 while the leather-jacketed guitar rides a flying carpet. (Don’t let anyone tell you barbeque and curry don’t mix, boys and girls – The Katmen will prove ‘em wrong.)

The instrumental “Kill The Switch” is sheer Bo-Diddley-meets-The-Clash-and-Dick-Dale madness from the planet Groove; “This Time It’s Real” is classic snuggle-with-your-baby do-wop; “All In Good Time” is a charge of surf madness that employs a minor-keyed setting to amp up the tension and desperation of the lyrics; Les Paul would’ve loved “I’ll Make It Right If I Can” (a Higham original); and “You Can Go Now” is a rocking dismissal of a lover who’s done wrong – the words do the deed with dignity; Gare’s growling bass and Phantom’s slamming drums provide the big eff-you undertones. And when The Katmen allow a gal into the clubhouse (Higham’s wife Imelda May is featured on “I’ll Do It Everytime”) it’s a good time for all with a hiccupping beat and a lesson by Higham in how to say everything that needs to be said on your guitar in a cool 13 seconds.

Make no mistake about it: The Katmen are no novelty act. The Katmen Cometh finds them doling out a mix of well-constructed originals and neat covers that may be based in the rockabilly sound, but aren’t trapped in it. These cats – err, Kats – are making things happen.

Fun? You bet your ass. Talented? Oh, yeah.

Turn it up – it’s summer.

*****

Brian Robbins is lying on the ground trying to tighten up the muffler clamps over at www.brian-robbins.com.

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