Saturday, April 2, 2011
The Dirtbombs Start The Party (Again)
When I heard about the Dirtbombs' new album, Party Store, I was fascinated. As a card-carrying member of the 'Bombs fan club, and a lifelong fan of primitive early techno music (too many "synthesizer magic" demonstrations in elementary school, and "3-2-1 Contact" episodes on electronic music tech. A few years as a kid in Europe at the dawn of the '90s didn't hurt), it seemed like a really strange choice for a group as sweaty and organic as the combo that put out the garagey Dangerous Magical Noise and the R&B covers masterpiece Ultraglide In Black. But something about their last album hinted that all was not well at the mod shindig these groovy soulsters were rocking. 2008's We Have You Surrrounded kept the band's two (biggest) strengths intact: a slicked-back sense of how to inject groove and soul music into a rock format, and a vicious intensity that masked some seriously dark undertones. To an armchair socilogist like me, Surrounded is one of the finer records of the latter half of the last decade because it captures the tenor of the times so well... a post-9/11 terror state... bombings, riots, Egypt and Libya on the verge of collapse... it ain't exactly the second Age Of Aquarius. Along with Gorillaz Demon Days, it managed to merge a rocking-in-the-face-of-it spirit with a one-eye-over-your-shoulder reality check.
So what happens when you end up in an about the worst example of urban decay (sorry, Detroit!) in one of the bleakest times in memory? You look back to see what your predecessors did in times of strife. In this case, they danced.
The late '80s in Detroit were nobody's idea of a Garden Of Eden, but in a testament to the human spirit and the effects of psychedelic club drugs, some brilliant minds were creating what, to them, were the updated sounds of the European jet set. What happened, of course, is that their creations got away from them and became some combination of the Iron Giant and a lumbering Johnny Appleseed, changing the face of the pop music landscape for the next, oh, thirty years. But this isn't really about what happened in electronic and pop music from 1990 onward. This is about what it sounds like when the times around you don't look good... when there's no money, no love, no peace, no future, and you realize there's nothing you can do So you just... fucking... dance.
Don't forget that bandleader Mick Collins has been denying the Dirtbombs' status as a "garage rock" act since the band's inception. Every time I read an article with the man, he's frustrated at being pigeonholed. I mean, it has to be a little tounge-in-cheek, because as anyone who's seen them live can attest, they put the sweat and blood into crashing drums and fuzzed out guitars like nobody's business... it's pretty close, Mick. But he's always categorizing the group as a "dance band", and at first glance, it's hard not to wonder if this concept (garagey combo plays TECHNO songs?!?) isn't some kind of contrarian impuse to say "YEAH, JERKS - WE ARE A DANCE BAND, SEE?". My faith in their abilities made me want to check it out, but even a devoted fan like myself was skeptical that it could be a success. It seemed more like the type of album that's usually mentioned in conversation as "Oh, you know, they're all good, except of course for that techno covers one, but that was just a weird one-off experiment". Depending on your taste, its a charge that could be levelled against any genre-exercise album (Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue", The Byrds' "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo", etc). I didn't doubt Collins' love of the music: as a longtime Detroit scenester/supporter, I can't imagine he wasn't jacking to some of the futuristic sounds of Derrick May and Model 500. He's been threatening a Dirtbombs "bubblegum" record for years now, too. But jumping from being a MASTER of one genre to even being "pretty good" in another... that's a tough move, Mick. So this album was approached with a little caution.
On first listen, it was just a surprise to hear the MC5-like sound of the band's ramalama constrained to such a repetitious form... but luckily, years of damaging my brain with Fall albums and Krautrock bootlegs kept me on board. I was intrigued. Had some things to do. Put it on later... and well, I pumped it into the CTRL Sound Department's speakers, strapped on my guitar, cranked up the fuzz, and played along ALL NIGHT.
The Krautrock mention up there isn't without a point... the early "Bellville Three" (techno pioneers May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson) material was essentially an update of the sounds Kraftwerk were making at the time, modelled for ritzy club play, but if you trace that back even one more link in the chain, Kraftwerk were simply the first all-electronic Krautrock band. If you can imagine what Kraftwerk's best-known songs would sound like on traditional instruments, you're simply regressing to early Krautrock pioneers. It's then strange to go FORWARD in time, from Kraftwerk to their disciples, to imagining transferring those electronic grooves on organic "rock" instruments, instead of the other way around. The difference? The Dirtbombs have soul on their side. They make these robotic grooves swing and bump rather than click and thump. As several reviewers paid far more than me have already pointed out, the Dirtbombs play everything like they're going for the jugular, so to hear them so savagely attack these minimalist phrases and extended rhythmic grooves with the same brutal intensity that they tear into a Motown cover. Or, for that matter, a Brian Eno cover. Or even an INXS cover. These guys (and girl - Ko Melina, of the highly underrated Ko and The Knockouts) don't fuck around. Ko delivers her finest vocal performance to date on this album, cooing in the "diva" counterpoint role so often necessary on these old techno and house songs. Lethal doses of inventive arrangements, thanks to the unconventional twin-bass, twin-drummers lineup, leads to a ton of danceable rhythms pumping out of the speakers. Guitar squonk abounds, too... the band hasn't abandoned their love of thrashing tempos, incisive guitar lines, and more fuzz than the chins of a Portland hipster bar.
So I think it's great. But will anybody else? Fuzz fans with an affinity for a VERY specific type of dance music (hard to find on albums as it was a 12" singles genre, and dance music is so forward-moving, much of it is considered "old and useless" within a year), it seems like a pretty niche market, geared mainly toward... myself? I genuinely have no idea if the band expected a market for this type of album. Open-minded listeners with a penchant for repetition and fuzz will fall in love with it, but its easy to imagine a lot of casual fans from the rock end of the spectrum being turned off at the near-complete lack of hooks and even vocals. It's not an instrumental record... but there's not much "singing" to be found. Technophiles will steer clear because it's a crunchy rock act playing ancient songs. If one even has a distaste for techno beats and repetitious buzzsaw faux-sequencer lines, this isn't your cup of tea. The band hasn't simply adorned their songs with the trappings of another style, a la the '97 "year of drum 'n' bass", but the Dirtbombs swallowed, digested, and completely recreated this style within the parameters of their style. Whether this is a good thing, or even a necessary thing, is the subjective element here. As a fan of both highly-specified categories, I'm in lurve. But if you're not... you might be better served by the singles comp. Buy this and give it a listen -- it makes better background music than you might think, but there's a high probability this isn't something for everyone. But I just spent about 3 hours pushing a tube amp to new levels of overdrive to rock along with one of the last great "rock and roll bands". So I guess that's a pretty positive review.
Posted by Mikey Shake at 6:38 AM