You don't hear 3 Balls of Fire discussed very much here on SG101, perhaps rightly so. Though they are associated with the surf scene, they are much more of a guitar led instrumental band. In the past, their albums have featured some lengthy layered works that would immediately disqualify them from the trad camp. Bandleader Mike Vernon mostly fingerpicks, plays through small Fender combos and improvises up a storm. He also has a huge knowledge of chord theory and harmony, and isn't afraid to use it.
So what's in it for you? Jet Set Guitars truly captures a mid to late 60s atmosphere, not only in tone, but in a laid back attitude that conjures up images of ace players laying down their own music in between one take sessions, or letting the tape roll during an after hours jam. The cigarettes and whiskey are tangible elements. If you like adjectives like "solid groove" and "warm vibe", this is the album for you. It simply reeks of "hi-fi" analog, the mistakes are intentional and uncorrected. And, every song is short, melodicly minded and well crafted.
Many of the songs are based on a simple, syncopated riff that sets up the groove. That basic simplicity ties the music to predecessors like Vernon's heros George Tomsco or Link Wray and keeps the arrangements from venturing any where near being labeled progressive. And all the guitar work is just so damn tasteful, even if it's a fuzz or wha-wha part. A lot of times, Vernon's blurring of reverbia and jazz makes me wonder if this is what Duke Robillard would sound like if he had ever heard of the surf genre.
Only the first song, "Wildfire" could pass for surf, with a double picked melody, standard back beat and stripped down arrangement. On "Las Vegas Scene" Vernon's arrangement is sublime- an ass-backwards bass, drum and tambourine groove set against honky tonk piano and country-politan chicken pickin'. It's so live you can hear Mike call out instructions to the band as they roll through it. A cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" is kind of an oddball track here, not because it is the only cover, but due to it's quiet nature, with 4 carefully arranged guitars handling all of the Brian Wilson's harmonies. The 4 bar bridge turn around is perfectly done with a little extra reverb on heavily muted strings. When necessary the songs are colored with orchestral elements like the vibes in "Jet Set Guitars", or the woodwinds in "Dark Eyes". Oh yeah, I really dig the fuzz bass lead on "Pedal Pusher".
Mike Vernon has the confidence to be able to completely explore a theme, in this case an album of 60s moods. He doesn't have to prove anything about his abilities (both technical and compositional), a mistake that many bands make on their freshmen releases. He knows he can make a record that sounds completely different from his last, and won't be tied down to a certain sound for his next. Jet Set Guitars has not left my top five for the last three months- I highly recommend this album.
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