Lee Rocker

Lee Rocker
Racin’ the Devil

Alligator 4907

By Matt Desenberg
July 2006

In a world of manufactured rock stars and overly-doctored albums (Ashlee Simpson anyone?), the latest studio outing by Lee Rocker, titled Racin’ the Devil,is anything but heartless. As expected from Rocker and his crew, the musicianship is top notch.

Mincing no words on the album’s kickoff, “The Girl From Hell,” Rocker sets the stage for the classic, up-tempo rockabilly-with-a-smattering-of-Johnny Cash shuffles which dominate the album. Pounding on his trademark upright bass over reverb-soaked Tele twang and a foot-stomping drum groove, the track has all the makings of a real roadhouse masterpiece. Unfortunately, Rocker’s rather simplistic lyrics (which are stark contrast to the rest of the album) and straining vocal range leave something to be desired; both his chorus and outro wailings seem to be an echo of Robert Plant mixed with Bo Diddley, which in this case translates to the listener reaching for fast forward.

While the opener is less than the album’s highpoint, things quickly pick up over the next few tracks. A remake of the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” (whom Rocker originally played bass for back in the day) makes way for the brilliant “The River Runs.” With thoughtful, introspective lyrics (“And the river runs, I’m running too/Those days are done, those days are through/I’m moving on to higher ground, hear the echo of the sound/And the river runs”) and a vintage country-blues bass line, “The River Runs” is a gem of a song.

Racin’ the Devil sounds like four seasoned musicians walking into a room and letting it fly—no unnecessary instruments or overdubs. The band shows a remarkable technical prowess and ability to groove, showcased by melodic lines that mean business without crossing into “show-off” territory. Case in point: lead guitarist Brophy Dale’s tasteful fills and solo break on “Race Track Blues.”

As stylish as all this musicianship is, it doesn’t always overcome the limitations of Rocker’s vocal approach (which can sound like an overdone Elvis imitation), nor the inferior mixes that plague certain tracks. While Dale’s chops shine brilliantly on nearly every song, second guitarist Buzz Campbell is barely audible through much of the album. This is partially due to the mix levels, but the fact that every track is absolutely soaked in reverb contributes to a more distracting sound. While liberal use of echo and/or compression is fairly standard in many roots and country-style recordings, rolling off the master reverb a couple of notches may have helped the clarity here a bit.

That said, the album overall is a good one. The groove on “Funny Car Graveyard” brings in more of a swing feel in relation to the rest of the album. While the song is blues-based in structure, Rocker’s bass is way up in the mix and adds greatly to the swaying feel of the song.

While Racin’ the Devil will undoubtedly more than satisfy Rocker’s fan base, it seems somewhat unlikely to break into more mainstream markets (which, nowadays, is no catastrophe). The album recalls the old days when musicians recorded competently live, and had to be accordingly tight in order to pull it off. More a testament to his legendary live shows and technical prowess, Racin’ the Devil is definitely a good album, but not a great one.

www.leerocker.com

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