On their best songs--the ones that lit up the London club scene two years ago and are still reverberating in rock discos around the world -- the Stray Cats don't personalize or even modernize rockabilly, they just stylize it to a fashionably space-age extreme. Short on blues or hillbilly roots, these three dispossessed New Yorkers appropriated the excitement of rockabilly: compulsive bass runs, blood-curdling screams and heavily echoed vocals, and wild rock and bop, jazz- inflected guitar work. On "Runaway Boys" and "Rock This Town," the results turn ears as quickly as their sartorially excessive hepcat appearance turns heads. But their first American album, "Built for Speed," suggests that, streamlined or not, these guys are trying to cruise uphill on some increasingly low-octane rock'n'roll.
While the Stray Cats seem comfortable and occasionally inspired exploiting rockabilly -- all fantasy and freneticism to begin with -- they're as hapless as the Merseybeat bands of 20 years ago when it comes to rhythm and blues. "Built for Speed," "Little Miss Prissy," and "Rev It Up and Go" try to rework the musical literature on sex-as-cars- as-girls one more time, but with none of the tough nuance or winking-eye humor of Chuck Berry. "Lonely Summer Nights" is a woeful stab at a romantic ballad that shamelessly parades Brian Setzer's characterless vocals. Still, if you saw the Stray Cats on "Fridays," you know they're exciting, do sweat and Setzer may be the first rockabilly singer since Eddie Cochran who can really play guitar. So they get another chance on stage. THE RECORD, THE SHOW THE ALBUM: Built For Speed (EMI-America 17070). THE CONCERT: Stray Cats, Tuesday at 8 at the Ontario.