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Deck the halls with twang and reverb

Los Straitjackets venture into Christmas music

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The bright white CD gleams with silver snowflake graphics, and the cheerful script along its edge spells out "'Tis the season." When this disc starts spinning, however, the first sound from the stereo speakers evokes a sunny California coastline rather than a frosty Winter Wonderland. It's the unmistakable bomp 'n' stomp known as the surf beat -- twanging guitars and thumping drums locked in a rhythm as mighty as a rising wave. Six seconds later, through some deftly executed fretboard sleight-of-hand, the tune's hit-the-beach intro magically morphs into a beautiful, reverb-drenched guitar instrumental of "Here Comes Santa Claus."

The CD is 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, and it's the latest exercise in jaw-dropping guitar legerdemain by an all-instrumental American rock 'n' roll band that has become just as famous for its colorful Mexican wrestling-mask costumes -- and its hilarious onstage choreography -- as for its phenomenal mastery of '60s-style twang and reverb.

An obvious model for Los Straitjackets' 'Tis the Season was The Ventures' Christmas Album, a 1965 mingling of traditional holiday melodies with instrumental riffs lifted from Top 40 hits. The Ventures' version of "Sleigh Ride," for instance, began with the familiar rolling drums and descending chords of their own signature anthem, "Walk Don't Run." This novelty arrangement was so clever and memorable that Los Straitjackets recorded their own version as a single in 1996. 'Tis the Season serves as its expanded follow-up.

"We're always kinda brainstorming about what we should do in the future," says Los Straitjackets' guitarist Eddie Angel, speaking by phone from his Nashville home, "and a Christmas album is something that always got mentioned."

The project finally took shape when Angel and drummer Jimmy Lester, also a Nashville resident, found themselves with four days to spare between gigs in California, where the group's other two members, bassist Pete Curry and second guitarist Danny Amis, make their home.

"It all came together this past summer in L.A.," recalls Angel, "in Pete's home studio. Pete's played with Davie Allen, the Halibuts, and Jon and the Nightriders, so he has all this really cool equipment -- old amps and various reverb tanks -- which gave us more control over our guitar tone than usual. The man works pretty fast. We recorded it in just three or four days, and then later Pete mixed it and put in a few overdubs."

The difficulty was figuring out how to make each song glow with its own distinctive Los Straitjackets imprint. "We knew we had to give it variety," Angel says. "It couldn't be just one surf beat after another. We were under the gun time-wise for the recording session, so we used all our ideas."

Second guitarist Danny Amis, a Minneapolis gringo whose love of Mexican culture inspired the band's name and appearance (and whose periodic South-of-the-Border shopping excursions keep them well-supplied with their distinctive stage masks) brought in an unusual Mexican mambo vocal recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The 'Jackets borrowed its cha-cha rhythm, added a few shots of "Tequila" to the mix and let Angel run wild with a Spanish classical guitar during the solo break.

Another obvious choice was Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad," which incorporates elements of "La Bamba" in Los Straitjackets' version. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" gets rendered in the ghostly, mystical production style of the surf classic "Pipeline," with a keyboard solo break lifted straight from Del Shannon's "Runaway." Appropriately, "Little Drummer Boy" gives drummer Jimmy Lester a "Let There Be Drums"-style workout, while the guitars offer Link Ray-style power chords. "Christmas in Vegas," one of the record's two originals, mixes some "Viva Las Vegas" with schmaltzy lounge-jazz chords. "Christmas Weekend," the other original, features an introduction that suggests "I Fought the Law" and, later, a glittering display of Stratocaster notes, bent with the exuberance of a teenager finding his first Fender under the tree.

Throughout, Angel highlights his impressive repertoire of guitar stunts. Whether he's generating a "quiver-twang" (forming a chord with one hand and pounding the guitar with the other) or "shooting-the-string" (pointing at the neck while executing a pull-off), Angel's guitar-playing looks as delightful as it sounds. Another favorite effect is the "dog-paddle," stroking the neck with both hands. "That's the most sound a guitar can possibly make," he says, "all six strings being flailed at once."

Though Los Straitjackets use a variety of instruments in the studio, on stage they all play only DiPinto guitars, which resemble classic Fender axes in appearance and tone. "They're matching guitars," Angel says. "That's important -- to look like a band, the way a baseball team looks like a team."

Another aspect of Los Straitjackets' carefully planned visual presentation is the Fabulous Pontani Sisters, a sexy dance troupe who swoop, shake and shimmy during many songs on the band's current tour. The group met the "sisters" in New York, back in 2000, when they used to dance at a weekly go-go night held at the World Trade Center's Windows of the World restaurant.

"The Pontani Sisters bring something original to it," Angel says. "They're not just doing a paint-by-numbers thing from the past. [They're] bringing some new energy to it, but with perfect attention to details. What cracks me up about the Pontanis is they always have a smile. What rock audience has seen this in last 20 years? Always smiling, that's something from another era -- innocence, but not real innocence -- an antidote to all the fake anger and stuff. They've worked out six new routines for this Christmas tour."

Beyond Christmas, Angel has begun planning for next year. The biggest event looming on Los Straitjackets' horizon is a three-day ocean cruise they've scheduled with their '60s predecessors, the Ventures. "We've got about 500 people signed up for this already," he says. "We'll be sailing out of L.A. and down to Mexico. The Ventures are gonna play the first night, we're gonna play the second night and the last night we're all gonna do something together -- each of us will do a set, and then we'll somehow integrate it.

"Best of all," Angel says with boyish enthusiasm, "there'll be guitar clinics on board during the daytime. We can ask the Ventures how they played 'Walk Don't Run'!"

greg.nicoll@creativeloafing.com

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