Album Review: The Cash Box Kings – Oscar’s Motel

Co-leaders Joe Nosek (on blues harp and vocals) and Oscar “Mr. 43rd Street” Wilson (vocals) know their way around the high energy Chicago variant of the blues. Save for the sonic clarity that comes from working in a 21st century recording studio, Oscar’s Motel‘s opening track could often be mistaken for a genuine 1940s article. The title tune is a gritty slice of Howlin’ Wolf-inspired bluesiness.

But the variety contained in the Cash Box Kings’ musical bag means that the group quickly takes the music elsewhere. A tight horn section figures prominently in Down on the South Side, with a rock-solid rhythm section underpinning. Then it’s back to vintage textures for a stripped-down, drummerless treatment of Muddy Waters’ Please Have Mercy. Nosek’s wonderfully distorted harp wails throughout.

With its phone-call intro, the shuffling band original “I Can’t Stand You” is a blues cousin to the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.” But lyrical references to Facebook plant the song firmly in the here-and-now. Delta Farr’s guest vocal works nicely alongside Nosek and Wilson.

Postwar jump blues/r&b textures come to the fore on “Hot Little Mess,” a tune that swings hard. That track – like all 11 on the record – showcases the fun that the band is having while making this music. Initially more serious in nature is the gospel-meets-field holler flavor of “Nobody Called it the Blues.” The song’s “live in the studio” vibe is one of the keys to its effectiveness.

Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Pontiac Blues” gets a dance-blues reading from the band; listen and you can almost feel the juke joint sawdust beneath your feet. And since that tune will likely leave dancers out of breath, “Trying So Hard” follows on its heels. “Trying So Hard” slows the tempo to a grinding crawl. The tension is palpable, giving the song the character its lyrics demand. The dialogue between Nosek’s overdriven harp and guest guitarist Shoji Naito’s stinging slide guitar is a delight.

She Dropped the Axe on Me” demonstrates songwriter Nosek’s skill at crafting a fresh tune out of familiar elements. And the song provides one of many opportunities on Oscar’s Motel to enjoy the expressive and playful piano work of Lee Kanehira. “I Want What Chaz Has” is another fun number that hints at what the band would be like live onstage. The gang backing vocals conjure memories of Louis Prima or Louis Jordan. And despite its holiday theme, the rocking album closer “Ride Santa Ride” is a fun tine most any time of year.

Joe Noske’s varied and always note-perfect production values showcase the strengths of the band and shine a light on the Cash Box Kings’ variety. On their tenth album the band show no sign of losing any of the qualities that make them special. Checking into Oscar’s Motel guarantees an enjoyable stay.