Friday, May 31, 2024

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats - The Hits Keep Coming

They kid on a bit, do Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. The cover of The Hits Keep Coming has the quartet striking a larky pose, putting up their dukes in boxing fashion.  And opening track ‘Somewhere Else’ underlines that light-hearted image, bringing together Estrin’s gritty harp, a tasty bass groove from Jerry Jemmott, and Kid Andersen’s steely, rock’n’rolling guitar in a funky, amusing “kiss off” song – as in “Good luck somewhere else”.
There’s more in an upbeat vein as the album progresses, with the likes of the Muddy Waters tune ‘Diamonds At Your Feet’ and ‘911’. The former is a bit of old-fashioned sounding fun, with
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats - more than just a barrel of laughs
Pic by Steve Jennings
skipping drums, tootling harp, and gospel undertones, while the latter is a rock’n’rollin’, swinging hoot about a sexy woman inducing a medical emergency, with zippy harp and guitar solos from Estrin and Andersen.
But there’s a dark side lurking behind the musical bonhomie.  The bopping and bouncing ‘The Circus Is Still In Town (The Monkey Song)' may sound exactly like its title suggests, right down to some fairground-like organ from Lorenzo Farrell, but the lyric is a subtle lament about addiction.
This more downbeat tone extends across the title track, on which Estrin bemoans “one more messed up year” against a warped and swampy backdrop, reinforced by the dark backing vocals served up by The Sons Of Soul Revivers, and the intriguing folkish blues of Leonard Cohen’s bleak ‘Everybody Knows’, which the Revivers embellish with some doo-woppish harmonies. Truth to tell, Estrin’s voice is now better suited to these contemplative outings than to fun and games, having become rather more shaky and querulous since the last Nightcats album to cross my path, 2017’s Groovin’ In Greaseland.
His now wavering tone works well, too, on the woozy blues of ‘I Ain’t Worried About Nothin’’, catching the undercurrent of doubt from a character trying to convince himself he's not lonely. And if his semi-spoken delivery on ‘Time For Me To Go’ at first seems to be painting a picture of closing time in his local bar, the sense that it’s a reflection on impending mortality becomes more stark as he observes wearily that “most of the folks I used to know, split the scene a while ago”.
There’s tongue in cheek humour in the closing ‘Whatever Happened To Dobie Strange’ though – Dobie Strange being a former Nightcats drummer from yesteryear. It’s a slinky, funky groove with offbeat, bumping bass, and a wah-wah solo from Andersen, while Estrin’s semi-spoken vocal recounts in droll style, some of the dumb or predictable things that fans have said to him over the years. Did someone really imagine, I wonder, that he was actually former Nightcats band leader Little Charlie Baty, and had changed his name?
So yeah, Rick and the boys can produce some hip-shaking and some laughs.  Now and then it can feel a bit lightweight, and the mood may be more persuasive than melodies at times. But still, The Hits Keep Coming is deeper than it might seem at first listen. In the best moments here Estrin & The Nightcats convey the sense of becoming aware, out of the corner of your eye, of the lengthening shadows.  Makes ya think.
The Hits Keep Coming is out now on Alligator Records.

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