Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys,
What a Dream It's Been
(Cow Island, 2013)

Twenty-five years after its founding in Anaheim, Calif., in 1988, there is still no band quite like Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. Yes, Sandy and the crew are a roots outfit -- nothing unusual in that, particularly at a time when roots sounds are happily ascendent -- but their roots are uniquely defined in mid-century pop, specifically rockabilly, doo-wop and crooned (as opposed to honkytonk) country. And yet this is not exactly a revival exercise; all of the material is original with Robert Williams (Big Sandy), who is too young to have been around when the sort of music that inspires him poured forth from juke boxes and AM radio.

What a Dream It's Been is distilled from the band's previous albums, each composition chosen from an earlier release. It's unclear from the promotional material if this is its 14th or 15th album, but no matter. Here, on their Cow Island debut, Big Sandy and the boys (relative newcomers Jeff West and Joe Perez, veteran Ashley Kingman) place the material inside freshly imagined, purely acoustic arrangements. Heretofore, my CD collection housed only their 2003 Yep Roc release It's Time!, which I like very much. I am mildly disappointed that the dazzlingly melodic, melancholy story-song "The Night is for Dreamers" isn't here. On the other hand, with "(You Mean) Too Much to Me" carried over from It's Time!, there are 11 songs I haven't heard before.

The new, sparer production -- not that Big Sandy's records have ever been over-produced -- works nicely. Sandy is a rock 'n' roll crooner out of the old school, by which I mean the music that those who've been around long enough will recall from its first iteration more than half a century ago. Set to simple but catchy tunes, the songs both nod to past styles and feel like something original, in the way the finest contemporary folk singers are able to conjure up tradition and modernity at the same time. While Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys certainly know what was appealing about another generation's pop, they never cause listeners to think that what they're hearing is stale and imitative. The music is solidly crafted enough to lay claim to its own brand of authenticity.

What's missing from its models are the teen-age references and dated slang. If the songs are nearly all about love lost and won, they're told from an adult perspective. Often, there's a wistful, dreamy quality that effectively plays off against the songs' unvarnished emotional truths. As in life, wishes and realities collide, and we sort out the wreckage and go on. It's hard to imagine what's not to enjoy here.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 October 2013

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