BETTER OFF ALIVE Pete Witham and the Cozmik Zombies.
Pete Witham and the Cozmik Zombies are and are not exactly what you'd think. Sure, they're silly and ironic and probably wish it were 1954 all over again. But behind a bit of hokum lies a damn good band, more than a few smart turns of phrase, and an interesting contemporary turn on some long-standing forms of Americana: hopped-up rockabilly, syrupy country, swing, and Elvis-era rock and roll.
Their first album, Full Tilt!, is nine songs and 30 minutes of prime material — all-killer, no-filler, as they say — recorded with Jonathan Wyman over the course of four days, mostly live, often in one or two takes, maybe with some backing vocals or lead guitar tracked in later. That's important. These songs would be in danger of coming off as pure kitsch if they were too studio-polished. As it is, there's a palpable energy that drives the disc, from the audible pops of Haakon Kallweit's (the Piners, Shanna and the Hawk) stand-up bass to Per Hanson's (Pinetop Perkins, Ronnie Earl, plenty more) cymbals bleeding into everyone else's mics. Wyman and Adam Ayan get their usual props for making this record glow in the headphones, sounding incredibly immediate (except for maybe the last gospel tune, "I Swear that I'll Find You," where Witham leads with his acoustic and things are a bit muffled).
But it's Witham's show, after all, and he's definitely the focus here, with vocals that range from gritty growl to soothing croon and fire-breathing lead guitar. He's got a great feel for eliciting a crisp, twanging guitar tone from his Gretsch, an instrument I remember Wyman working really well with when he was recording the first Seekonk record. Witham has experience on the national stage, too, having toured around playing lead for Spookie Daly Pride, a jam/pop/rock band also known to get a little silly from time to time.
The story goes that Witham came to Maine and started doing some acoustic shows with rhythm guitarist Steve Dunphy, when Portland gadabout Kallweit stumbled across them and offered to produce a record. The result has the feel of a band throwing things against the wall to see what sticks (in a good way).
There are hard-chargers like the title track, an over-the-top trucker tune with a pop chorus, and their take on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which features an especially ferocious opening on the guitar, vocals that move around the band from verse to verse, and tasteful bass and drum solos. And pretty straight rockabilly, too, like "When Will You Realize?," which is one of those songs that sounds like a whole lot of other songs, but manages to be a little bit indie, like a more rootsy Weakerthans.
But the more nuanced tunes tend to be the most interesting here. "Your Kitty Kat Wants Out" is more of a Brian Setzer-style swing, with a bit of Hot Club of Cowtown thrown in, and it's here where Witham's wit shines: "Well you only get nine lives, if what they say is true/I must have wasted eight of them, curled up next to you" and "well they used to call me top cat, and I could hold my head up high/Now they whisper 'pussy' every time that I walk by" are my personal favorites.