Monday, May 16, 2011

Keeping The Urge Alive: Dive, Captain, Dive!

It's 2011. And I just purchased a newly-recorded Urge Overkill album. On vinyl. When are we?

At 16, an older friend tipped me off to the joys of Urge's masterpiece - Saturation. I call it their masterpiece because to my mind, it's where their (too early for irony) '70s rock-god image-mongering met the effortless hooks of savvy ex-punks. They were loud, hooky, and catchy as the flu. Over the years, I've eventually come to the conclusion that I prefer the previous album The Supersonic Storybookfor it's alternative guitars and Exit The Dragon for its beautifully ragged Exile On Main Street "everything's-faling-apart" atmosphere.

As good as each of those are, Storybook is too ragged, and Dragon is too wiped-out to really register as "the one". No, for sheer summertime adrenaline, Saturation is the one to go with -- glossy and shiny as a new pair of sunglasses, and stomping like a mammoth. Riff after riff, thundering drums, and enough "whoo hoo hoo"s to get anyone smiling.

Now, as many years have gone by since Urge Overkill's last record in '95 as the years I had under my belt when I first heard them. And they sound no worse for wear on Rock & Roll Submarine. I have no idea what that ridiculous title means, but love seeing that "UO" logo on an album. The cover is wonderful, as is the interior blueprint of what would be included INSIDE a giant, spherical, multi-story submarine/lair (tiki bar and bowling lane are ESSENTIAL). But what matters is what's inside the grooves, maaaan. It's no instant summer classic, but this is the followup that Saturationdeserved but never really got. Enter The Dragon had more in common with the disheartened rawness (production-wise and emotionally) of the indie rock of the 2000s, but despite evidence of aural lessons learned from Dragon, the sounds here are mostly cribbed from the lumbering rock monsters of the past. As far back as Americruiser's "Ticket To L.A.", they've been working Marshall-stack classic-rock riffs into something modern and sassy enough for the (now-aging) Gen X. With the added bonus of this decade's audio engineering, they manage to polish most of these pummelling progressions to a burnished sheen.... not in a derogatory way, more like the way Cheap Trick could manage to be heavy and rockin' and raw and just a little bit slick on their earlier albums. Like the way a band like... say... Urge Overkill managed back in the day. With layers of flanged guitars and interweaving harmonies, Rock And Roll Submarine sounds more like a record the band might have made in an alternate timeline after Saturation made the boys the mega-stars they so clearly believed they were.

But what about the SONGS? Well, they're solid. Urge always wrote great riffs, and backed them up with cool arrangements and good vocals. The drums pound, the bass pulses, and the guitars churn out memorable riffs left and right. Sure, it's a new rhythm section, and previous drummers Jack Watt and Blackie Onassis each had their own style, but it was never the rhythm section that made you listen to Urge, right? By adding new drummer Brian Quast and bassist Mike Hodgkiss (from the ever-awesome Gaza Strippers), Nash Kato and Eddie "King" Roeser are now free to double up the guitar crunch. The pair, reunited inexplicably after some Dino Jr-level infighting in the late-'90s, once again step up and deliver their trademark "badass rock'n'roll" vocals (a groovy style, not a judgement call), and it sounds perfectly... well... right. I can't quite put my finger on it, but all the pieces just add up to a great album.

Of course, many reviwers are writing this reunion off as some weird nostalgic joke. But the more I think about it, nobody makes records like this anymore. Straightahead rock and roll records, highly self-aware, but delivered with enough swagger that it backs up the (self-)hype. Surprisingly, the presence of Urge Overkill into the 2010s is far less irony-laced than I expected, since the previous incarnation is now primarily remembered as "early users of indie-rock irony" or "that band with that Neil Diamond song from 'Pulp Fiction'". Their velvet smoking jackets and turtlenecks seemed like an insane gimmick in an era of dour po-faced seriousness. So it's actually refreshing that by leaving smarminess largely to the wayside, Urge Overkill comes across as one of the LEAST "affected" rock bands out there. They're no dummies, so this isn't without humor (the back cover of the album features a submarine sandwich -- get it?), but they leave that to the trappings, not the music. Rather than load up the '70s conventions, this is a lean, mean rock record. A completely absurd value statement, to be sure. When Urge is one of your most direct and honest bands, the cosmic balance has been upset. In an era of high-concept albums and theatrical rock shows, it's pretty refreshing to have a quartet of guys go out and unapologetically rock the fuck out.


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