"Sinister sounds ring out on new rockabilly album"
Ever since Robert Johnson supposedly made his way to the crossroads, the notion of a young musician trading his immortal soul for talent has been a staple of music lore. With his latest entry, the delightfully devilish Holy Smokes!!, Skip Frontz Jr. flips the myth. He ain’t sellin’, he’s buyin’. That’s tongue in cheek of course as Skip is one of the nicest guys you’ll meet, but he has a knack for evoking joyfully sinister sounds on par with Nick Cave.
Sometimes rockabilly, sometimes surf, sometimes something else less easy to define, the album as a whole is a shining example of the power of stripped down, raw rock.
Some artists opt for loopers, delays, processors galore, and forty kinds of distortion, all of which can be used to great effect when applied skillfully but they can also be a crutch, a musical band-aid for otherwise lackluster playing. Skip takes the opposite approach, utilizing a relatively simple rig to achieve a sound that no amount of digital processing can replicate.
As a result, there is a purity to the music that hearkens back to a time when rock and roll was defined by attitude and passion rather than stomp boxes and gimmicks. It takes nerve and talent to pull that off but Skip, along with a little help from Dylan Bales and Dan Wamp, pulls it off and then some. That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the reputations of any of the three men, but surprise or not, it’s still a thing of beauty to actually hear.
There are eleven tracks altogether including two live recordings and three instrumentals. The instrumentals are especially choice. The first two, “Get 3 Coffins Ready” and “Surf Noir”, have a downright spooky vibe reminiscent of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, while the third, “Hammer Down”, could be the illegitimate child of Chet Atkins or Jerry Reed.
“GHOULARDI”, the opening track, might be psychobilly, though honestly there are so many subgenres of rockabilly that it seems easier to describe the music than to pick the right label to slap on it. The vocals deliver both the characteristic whoop/hiccups of Buddy Holly and “chin in the chest” bass of Elvis, and the lead lines evoke a late night horror show, making for a tune that is pure fun however you choose to classify it.
“Al Swearangen” is a wicked little ballad, a personal favorite that compels me to invoke Nick Cave a second time. This could easily have been a track on Murder Ballads.
“Razorback Holler (Pumpkinhead)” is by no means out of place on the album. It belongs exactly where it is but it is a standout as perhaps the most modern sounding of the lot having as much in common with early eighties thrash punk as it does with early, high energy rock and roll.
“ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!!” delivers exactly what it promises and would lead the good Reverend Horton Heat to say, “Damn son, where do you find time to breathe?!” Short, punchy, powerful, if it doesn’t make you move, you may need to check your pulse. The same may be said for “Luck”, another toe tapper that may get you a speeding ticket if you listen to it while driving.
The two live tracks, “Boogie Funk” and “Goin’ Down”, are all the convincing anyone ought to need that, as kick-ass as the album is (and it is), you really need to see these cats live. You can practically hear the sweat flying from the stage, the energy is so palpable.
Over the years I’ve gotten to hear Skip in a number of projects and in every case he never fails to impress but the evolution of his solo work is nothing short of exciting. The takeaway is if you need a sideman or guest artist, you can count on Skip, the consummate professional, to deliver precisely what you need. Set him loose on his own, however, and you had better buckle in because the pedal is going to the floor and the brakes are long gone.
The aptly titled Holy Smokes!! is a high energy romp, great spooky fun, and a reminder of how over half a century ago rock and roll captured one generation and scared the hell out of the other. Pick it up, take it home but for god sakes, catch these boys live the first chance you get.
January 15, 2020
Skip Frontz Jr. - Holy SMOKES!! - Viper House Records
I have often said that I hate reviewing the releases of people I consider friends so I often risk insulting them by declining. There are a few exceptions however. One of them is a former sailor from Chattanooga who goes by the name of Skip. I got introduced to him in a bar in Nashville and straight away I could tell this was a guy who knew his music. Fast forward a few years and we have this latest release. I so want to be critical. I want to be able to say I have no bias towards this chap. Trouble is I played every track and was blown away by them all. It becomes even more impressive when you remember the nine studio tracks have the same fine chap playing all the instruments. Not just playing them but showing a great degree of talent on each one. Now, I’m not going to break this down track for track. This collection has a very distinct feel running throughout. It is that Voodoo Rockabilly vibration that makes you want to book a flight to New Orleans and rattle chicken bones with a high priestess in a long forgotten temple.
All those flavours come rushing out at you. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, The Cramps, Creedence Clearwater Revival and an old favourite psychobilly band of mine called The Radium Cats. Maybe even some Dr John thrown in there for good measure too. I am sitting here trying to tell you a highlight but the truth is all nine studio and two live tracks had me under their spell. Skip’s last collection impressed me but this one has downright blown me away and had me moving from start to finish. Regular readers will understand the sound I am trying to describe and if you enjoy that kind of demonic recipe then I highly recommend this to you. At this time in the UK availability may be limited via usual sources so I would recommend looking up the artist or the label via the magic of the internet. Skip Frontz Jr. I dig that voodoo that you do so well. Do yourselves a favour and track this down, your ears and your soul will thank you forever.
-Morgyn Williams, UK Rock 'n'Roll Magazine
"Sometimes it can be a daunting task to keep things fresh on an hour long Rockabilly leaning program. Sure there are the classics and lots of new acts that are great but sometimes things can get to sounding the same. Then there are days you get a single like "Vicetown" by Skip Frontz Jr. & his Left Handed Luckies. I was hooked from the opening seconds and it just kept getting better. Rockabilly, Psychobilly, New Orleans Jazz, Punk...and that's just the half of it. If you're looking for something fresh, I can guarantee you that you don't have anything like this in your playlist...yet. Give it some spins and you'll agree it's exactly what you've been missing. You just didn't know how to describe it. It's ok... I still can't describe it other than it's a perfect fit!"
- James Riley, Rockabilly N Blues Radio Hour
"If you like it low down and dirty then head to "Vicetown" where the sounds of Psychobilly meet a mean Mexican Mariachi sound. Not for the faint hearted."
- Morgyn Wiliams, UK Rock and Roll Magazine
"Upon first listening to "Vicetown" it gave me a toe tapping fresh feel for the music. It's got quite a bit of depth to it than just your average rock and roll/ rockabilly sound that's out there right now."
- Loner Troubadour, host of the The Big D Boogie Woogie on KSVG 89.7 FM Savage Radio
"Vicetown" is a heavy-hitting swing track, mechanized by the propulsive explosion of energetic rock and roll, driven by lawless insanity!"
- Urb Thrasher, 420radio.org
"What a great album. Skip takes all the best bits from Jazz, Rhythm n Blues, Rockabilly, swing and a whole lot more. He blends them together and adds his own modern twist.
What this produces is an album with loads of variety, great music and entertainment. This is definitely an album that once you have played it you feel great and the world seems a better place."
- Tony Screti, Slap that Bass Rockabilly, R&B, Album Reviews
"Skip Frontz Jr. & his Left Handed Luckies gave us a sneak peek of their new project, "Vicetown". At the time there was only a single with a B-side (“Vicetown” and “12 Gauge Love Affair”).
Besides the aforementioned single (see the Oct. 21st issue of The Pulse for that review), the album contains eight other tracks, each one a study in rockabilly and blues. Musically, Frontz is a man out of time. He has not only mastered the performance of music from a bygone era, he has mastered the ability to write that music as well, bringing to life fresh, new tunes that are so authentically vintage you can smell the Bakelite as the tubes heat up in the Victrola.
“Asphalt (in My Veins)” is a thigh-slapping, foot-tapping bit of musical energy dedicated to life on the road and the drive so many musicians feel jumping feet-first into a lifestyle that frequently has non-musicians questioning their sanity. Fancy guitar work, beautiful pedal steel and a classic Buddy Holly hiccup in the vocals, the tune is nouveau-retro.
“We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)” is as smooth as southern sippin’ liquor, a laid-back bit of music with classically lazy horns, a gently strummed guitar and vocals that just slip on out. Frontz is an excellent lyricist. Other writers don’t say half as much with twice as many words.
“The Axeman (of New Orleans)” which features the always beloved 9th Street Stompers is the happiest, hottest tune about a homicidal maniac you’re likely to hear all month. Light, frenetic, and tight, the song showcases the instrumental virtuosity of the players and the lovely background vocals are a pleasant addition and a bit of texture I’d like to hear more of in the future.
“Wormwood” is the band’s answer to, “Hey, you got any Gypsy music?” The instrumental piece (an homage to absinthe perhaps?) features an interplay between violin and guitar that may as well be a duet between lovers. Polyrhythmic and sensual, it adds a nice flavor to the mix of the album and is undoubtedly on Gomez and Morticia’s playlist.
“One Dime at a Time” is everything good about rockabilly; shuffling drums, bouncing bass, lead guitar to die for and verses that make us wonder when in the hell Frontz stops to breathe. There’s definitely some Johnny Cash in the flavor of this tune. “Dustbowl” is a similar, but decidedly jazzier, sort of tune properly themed to the era.
“Chain Gang Boogie” is where you go if you want to see the moment where “not yet rock and roll” became rock and roll. It’s the sort of song that would be equally at home with Ray Charles, Elvis, Brian Setzer or Jerry Garcia.
“Black Widow Stomp” is the last song to talk about on the album. Admittedly one of my favorite tracks, it is a very slight departure in as much as the guitar work is marvelously fuzzed up in a Tex-Mex style that plays well with Frontz’s low-key, slightly dangerous sounding vocals.
The point has already been made once, the album is eleventh months overdue, but the takeaway from this collection of music is that Frontz & his Left Handed Luckies are perfectionists and the extra time was time well spent. It’s hard to know if they captured precisely what they meant to, but I have to think so, and either way they’ve undeniably captured a bit of lightning in a bottle.
The album is flawless, exceptional and available November 22nd at a show near you or via skipfrontzjr.com
by Marc Michael
November 2, 2016
© 2015 Viper House LLC