There are all the times you have to acknowledge guitarist-composer Bill Frisell’s mastery of his instrument; his fearlessness in both studio and live settings; his inventiveness and his imagination.

And then there are times when – above all else – you have to simply say, “Jeez – he’s fun to listen to.”

Take, for instance, Frisell’s new Guitar In The Space Age! : everything in the first paragraph is demonstrated here, plus it’s a stone-solid 56 minutes’ worth of grins … as it probably was for Frisell and company to create.

The album’s theme is a simple one to get your head around: Frisell, who was born in 1951, does some time traveling back to dig into some of the music of his formative years. If you’re familiar at all with Frisell’s music, you’re already aware that even though his albums are usually found in the “Jazz” section, the sonic ground he covers knows no borders. And this visit back to the soundtrack of his roots helps explain things: The Kinks, The Byrds, Merle Travis, Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West are just some of the names Frisell pays homage to in his own inimitable fashion. Constant dopey grins aside, the results are amazing.

Frisell’s wingman for this outing is another multi-faceted stringmaster, Greg Leisz. Swapping off between electric six-string and pedal steel, Leisz is the perfect co-pilot, whether the pair is squaring off in a funked-up blues duel on “Messin’ With The Kid” or taking flight on the extended outro of “Tired Of Waiting For You”, fluctuating between deep-soul raga and acid-fueled freakout. The rhythm team of Tony Scherr on bass and drummer Kenny Wolleson roll with the flow expertly, equally at home in leather jackets or pressurized spacesuits.

The covers are instantly recognizable, although the settings are sometimes unexpected. Consider the surf classic “Pipeline”: the quartet somehow makes the sun set before waxing up their boards; you’re still on the beach, but it’s dark … and a bit foggy … and … we’re still on Earth, right?

Or how about “Rumble” – Link Wray’s classic turned-up-collar-mirror-shades-and-snarling-lip guitar workout from 1958: Frisell and Leisz (two of the least sinister humans you’d ever meet) establish the swaggering mood of the original before taking a hard left into Apeshitland. They pepper the thing with wild squeals and roars of feedback, punctuating phrases with laser-gun harmonics … and all the while, Scherr lopes along on what sounds like an old upright bass and Wolleson works the cymbals and floor tom like a too-cool jazzbo backing a stripper. Crazy, man … c-r-a-z-y.

There’s Duane Eddy low-end twang (“Rebel Rouser”); there’s happy Merle Travis-style burble (“Cannonball Rag”); there’s the gentle glide of “Turn, Turn, Turn”, the sunny heart-tug of “Surfer Girl” and the wistful flight of “Telstar” – and no matter how familiar some of these tunes are to you, Frisell and company have packed them with new depth and dimensions.

It’s a tribute to all hands that “The Shortest Day” and “Liftoff” – newly-penned Frisell originals – nestle in amongst these classics as kindred spirits. Both are atmospheric pieces that support the album’s theme of accessible adventure and happily-blurred vintages.

If you like to do your space travelling with imitation wood-grain paneling on the doors, this is the album for you, my friend. And whether the original songs are embedded into your DNA or you’re just discovering them for the first time, Guitar In The Space Age! is an amazing trip.


Brian Robbins keeps both his leather jacket and pressurized spacesuit over at www.brian-robbins.com