On the road again: Jesse Dayton and his Road Kings.
On the road again: Jesse Dayton and his Road Kings.
Kevin McVey

Local Rotation

Road Kings

Road Kings

Surfdog Records

Touted over the last five years as the smart young Texan most likely to evolve into a major alternative-country sensation, Jesse Dayton must have tired of waiting for the big time to happen. So screw it. He has returned to his primate roots by reforming the rockabilly trio the Road Kings.

That's the hell-bent, formerly Houston-based outfit the fiery guitarist created and then disbanded around 1994, when he also announced he was concentrating on becoming a "serious" singer-songwriter. Among other reasons for that career shift, Dayton said he was starting to feel "like a monkey," what with the retro shtick of his greased-back Big Daddy persona always out in front.

Well, welcome back, monkey man.

Until this latest de-evolution, however, you couldn't say Dayton didn't give serious artistry his best shot. Following his excellent 1995 country-fried debut, Raisin' Cain (Justice Records), he worked overtime to find an audience. He toured with Sammy Kershaw and opened shows for icons such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. He even appeared in music videos with Nashville darling Pam Tillis. But despite the regional popularity of such twangy songs as "Kissing Abilene Goodbye," stardom remained beyond the Beaumont native's reach.

Now 32 years old, Dayton may be reaching midlife crisis time. So, artistic aspirations aside, he's a Road King again, blowing the gunk out of the carburetor of his mind by going full-throttle down a well-traveled sonic highway. Teamed with slap bassist Jason Burns and drummer Richie Vasquez, Dayton has revived his old band as a hot-roddin' speed machine, primed for indelicate madness.

Under the direction of producer James Saenz (who has previously worked with Social Distortion, Jane's Addiction and Sugar Ray), these reincarnated Road Kings knock off 12 tracks in just over 34 minutes of playing time. The result: an adequate soundtrack for a cranked-up, wild-weekend road trip of frenzied partying. If you're into that. But like guzzling multiple shots of cheap booze, after a very short while, all the pointless bad-boy posturing grows old.

Which isn't to say that this high-octane package is devoid of clever songwriting, just that the imagery and themes are quite familiar. An unintentionally ironic press release from Dayton's California-based label gushes, "This album has more bang than Wiley Coyote's keg of ACME dynamite." And that's the problem: It's just hard to take seriously all these lyrical celebrations of fast cars, wanton substance abuse and sexually compliant females right out of some teenage boy's fantasy life.

Perhaps the most cartoonish numbers are two car tunes, "Supercop" and "Hot Wired." In the former, Dayton sings: "Cruising 100 miles per hour, ain't another car in sight / I've got some V-8 power and I'm cruising the speed of light / Well now the supercop is coming and I want to see my baby tonight." At a frenetic pace, the narrative goes on to tell of the inevitable siren, flashing lights in the rearview mirror, whiskey bottle thrown out the window and extended chase across the county line. It all culminates with our hero's finally being pulled over and pistol-whipped by the villain cop, at least until the righteously rebellious detainee has had enough, grabs the gun and shoots the lawman. Yeah, it's murder, but we understand because, hey, the dude's just got to get home and be with his baby, right?

But over all the tunes, "Hot Wired" takes the trophy for automotive clichés. This time Dayton talks about a car -- wink wink -- as if it were a girl, or vice versa. For instance, "Her motor's so tired, she needs it hot wired / Instead of slow burns, she needs a hard turn." The effect, understandably, is that our testosterone-juiced protagonist gets horny. "I want to drive her / Just for a few miles / Maybe a smile with her top down." Talk about fuel ejaculation.

In a variation on the adolescent automobile-equals-virility obsession, there's "Boystown," which finds Dayton down around Nuevo Laredo paying tribute to the initiation ritual of visiting a Mexican whorehouse. It's basically a rock number with Spanish-style guitar riffs interjected here and there -- nothing you haven't heard before. Though it opens with a fresh simile, the lyrical power degenerates quickly: "Wild and green like a cactus in June / Heading for the border by the light of the moon / That Texas highway will be ending soon. / Tequila dreams dancing in my head / Lonesome señoritas welcome me to bed / Instead of love I'm sold lust instead." Wow! What an epiphany!

There's a superficial charisma to this eponymous CD. So on first listen it might just get your blood pumping (especially if you're young and male). But coming from an intelligent and talented bandleader who not too long ago sought to be taken seriously as a songwriter, it's a big letdown.


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