It might seem like a natural assumption on the surface. After all, when you have been performing onstage for the 18 years in Mexican wrestling masks, one might be apt to dismiss you as a novelty act. But that is just one of the pleasant misconceptions surrounding Los Straitjackets. In short, never judge a band by its headgear.
From its inception, Los Straitjackets proved it had the chops and ingenuity to back up its stage profile. Fronted by twin guitarists Eddie Angel and Danny Amis, the band dug deep into garage rock and surf music inspirations. But what resulted never sounded relentlessly retro. It recordings were spirited, elemental, instrumental excursions that occasionally utilized outside vocalists for variety.
Jet Set, the band's just-released 13th album, sticks strictly to instrumentals. Yet what it offers over the course of 15 tunes builds on the surf and retro influences until the album emits a bright pop zeal all its own. Such a sound envelops Angel's Aerostar, a sunny, immensely accessible tune drenched in '60s pop references, from its lyrical guitar lead to Jason Smay's effortless backbeat.
But there is much for Los Straitjackets to celebrate on Jet Set. First, there is the return of Amis, who has been out of commission in recent years because of treatment for multiple myeloma. Though he hasn't resumed touring duties, Amis offers five compositions on Jet Set, including the album-opening Crime Scene, a brisk roustabout of a tune beefed up by the brass of Conan O'Brien's Basic Cable Band and swift melodic turns that summon images of cinematic car chases, circa 1966.
Among the other delights Amis brings to Jet Set is its title tune, a sort of country hullabaloo saturated in joyous twang and an equally exuberant percussive rumble, and Low Tide, one of the few instances in which the album cools its jet set for a slice of island solace. The resulting reverb sounds like a cross between a musical saw and theremin.
But Jet Set also uses Amis' touring replacement, Greg Townson, effectively, making the band a quintet. Townson writes or co-writes seven compositions on the album, including the atomic surf joy ride Bobsleddin', the less frenzied but still groove-savvy party rave-up Wrong Way Inn and the chunkier, after-hours guitar adventure Mr. Pink.
So, yes, Los Straitjackets still plays the costumed retro card to a degree — witness the cheeky cover art for proof. But the drive and variety initiated throughout Jet Set is far more the product of a band invigorated by new blood as well as the return of a co-founding force. And that makes for quite a party, indeed.