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Chadd Thomas and the Crazy KingsShake Alive! Hi-Fi Rhythm Records

Recorded music can take us different places, different eras, and that's cool. Contemporary musicians who can build on -- not merely imitate -- the people who inspire them are creative. Others, imitative. That distinction forms the background against which any self-consciously retro musical undertaking ultimately must be judged. Which brings us to Houston's latest rockabilly phenom, Chadd Thomas and the Crazy Kings.

In terms of sound, these guys can take you to a place (Memphis) and an era (1954) faster than you can punch an accelerator. But their commitment to do so brings up two big questions: 1) Is Memphis where you want to go in the first place? and 2) Is this how you want to get there? When original recordings from rockabilly's heyday are readily available on CD, getting there is easy enough. And authentic. So why bother with impersonators, no matter how talented they might be in replicating the sound?

That's the deal with Shake Alive! When it comes to rockabilly, Thomas and combo have every musical (and visual) nuance down. The Kings -- Thomas on vocals, David "T-Bone" Taylor on guitar and vocals, Jones on upright bass and other part-timers -- deliver a potent take on roots rock right out of Sun Records. No postmodern irony in their delivery, these Crazy Kings radiate sincerity despite their greased-back personae. The CD offers great party music (especially if it's a costume party with a '50s theme), re-creating in the studio the verve of the group's live performances in local clubs.

But as anything other than a soundtrack for good-time bopping and rocking -- an artistic statement, for instance -- Shake Alive! doesn't have much to recommend. Oh sure, most of the songs are originals, in the sense that Thomas composed them. Yet they're hardly new in terms of instrumental, vocal or lyrical content. Consider the opening sequence on the title track: "Well a-one and a-two and a-three, four, five / C'mon cats let's shake alive!" Following that a cappella couplet, the rhythm section immediately kicks into a manic shuffle and a dirty guitar riff, and we're off, bouncing to a sound once radically fresh, now so familiar.

"Crazy Kicks" might well be the theme song for these earnest shakers. It's hip-shaking fun all around. But lyrically, it's crazily cracked up. Over tapping drumsticks, Thomas sings: "I want to tell you about a place to get your crazy kicks." Then the band explodes into another shuffle, as Thomas, once again, sings: "Well, let me tell you about a place to get your crazy kicks." Each stanza concludes: "It's the place to go to get your crazy kicks." The chorus is the band's exclamation, "That's crazy!" and the singer's reply (repeated four times): "Well, it's crazy, man." And the ending: "It's the place to go to get your crazy kicks." Enough already.

"King Size Bed" evokes imagery worthy of Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men (who contributed "Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll" to the early rockabilly canon). Thomas sings: "I met an outer-space gal on earth last night. / She had light green skin and she was quite a sight. / She told me that she had a rocket ship / And then she asked real sexy, 'Want to take a little trip?' " In its veiled allusion to Riley, the song reflects an era when space travel, like rock music, was something incredibly new and exciting, especially to teenagers. Kind of like sex. Thomas's version hits all three buttons, climaxing in each stanza with the astonished declaration: "Her rocket ship was a king-size bed."

Featuring a few covers (including songs by Memphis legends Charlie Feathers and Johnny Burnette), plus eight Thomas compositions, Shake Alive! offers a set of frantic rockers mostly about cars and chicks. With titles such as "Rockin' at the Dragstrip," "Real Gone Daddy," "Rock! Roll! Bop!" and "Tip Top Daddy," this CD shouldn't be expected to say anything new. And it doesn't.

 
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