Monday, March 13, 2023

The Cash Box Kings - Oscar's Motel

Step this way, ladies and gentlemen – mind your head as you come on board.  That’s marvellous, take your seats and fasten your seatbelts please.  Now make yourselves comfortable, and very shortly your time machine will be taking off, and whisking you all the way back to 1960.  Approximately.
Which is to say that The Cash Box Kings are specialists in good old-fashioned Chicago blues.  Sure, there may be nine originals among the 11 tracks here, and a few references to Facebook get chucked into the lyrics of ‘I Can’t Stand You’, but the vibe of Oscar’s Motel is still resolutely, disarmingly old school.
The tone is set on the opening track, ‘Oscar’s Motel’ itself, a testimonial to the kind of joint where
Joe Nosek and Oscar Wilson noise it up and party on down
Pic by Janet Mami Takayama
you can party till you drop, and when you do drop you’ll still be in the right place.  The tune channels ‘Smokestack Lightning’ big time, with singer Oscar Wilson’s resonant voice evoking the spirit of the Wolf without resorting to brazen imitation.  If that doesn’t tell you where these guys are coming from, then the mournful slow blues of Muddy Waters’ ‘Please Have Mercy’ with its squawking harp commentary from Joe Nosek, probably will.  And if you want another touchstone, ‘Hot Little Mess’ pretty much lifts a chunk of melody from Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’ that’ll have you pondering whether maybe you can be an ace student, baby.  A slice of crossover rock’n’roll soul’n’pop, with a smooth vocal from Joe Nosek, some sweet Fats Domino-like piano, and low-down parping sax, it wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to Happy Days.
Some of this is a bit lightweight, it has to be said.  ‘I Want What Chaz Has’, a slight tale of male envy, is a prime example, notwithstanding its swinging, toe-tapping backing, with a call-and-response chorus, jazzy blues piano solo and guest vocals from John Nemeth.  And one might say the same of ‘I Can’t Stand You’, a squabbling duet between Wilson and Deitra Farr, though it’s still a bit of a hoot.
‘Nobody Called It The Blues’ is meatier fare.  With its field song-styled intro it harks back to slave times, and extols the value of music as a form of freedom and even defiance, culminating in a shoutalong chorus and some spiky guitar from Billy Flynn.  ‘Trying So Hard’ also adds some emotional weight, in the form of a slow but rhythmic blues on which slithering guitar, tinkling piano and – especially – Nosek’s moaning harp all go to plaintive work, while Wilson sounds like a man drowning his sorrows.
Quite why they’re including ‘Ride Santa Ride’ on an album released in March I don’t know, but with its twanging guitar break from Flynn and chiming piano chords from Lee Kanehira it adds Chuck Berry into the mix in pretty neat fashion.
Oscar’s Motel may often sound like an audio time capsule that was buried in 50s Chicago, but that’s okay.  The Cash Box Kings are doubtless capable of heavier duty stuff, but their simple aim with this album was to be the catalyst for a real good time.  So go grab a beer, and let 'em entertain you.
Oscar’s Motel is released by Alligator Records on 17 March.

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