For me at least, garage-rock presents a tough pickle for its practitioners, in that it requires a seriousness of intent that can be damaged or even completely squandered by bands/artists that take themselves too seriously. The original ‘60s garage wave documented on the NUGGETS, PEBBLES, and BACK FROM THE GRAVE volumes captured a ton of inspired bands ripping off and reprocessing R&B grooves, soul moves and by extension and design Stones/Yardbirds licks into so many brief flashes of musical immortality. The uncorked mayhem of obscurities like The Rats’ “The Rat’s Revenge Part 1 & 2” or the scorching punk of one-off wildcard chart hits like The Music Machine’s “Talk Talk” made it clear that the descriptions of the era by its partisans was largely accurate. Specifically, the ease, speed and cheapness of making records when coupled with the wide-open pre-corporate spirit of the marketplace made it possible for that band on yr block to not only put out a top notch record or three, but to also occasionally score local, regional or even nationwide hits. The Beatles and Dylan essentially established the mode of Rock Stars as Serious Artists, but the garage bands were on the opposite end of the spectrum. To make an analogy to painting, Beatles/Dylan = Abstract Expressionism/Surrealism and Barbarians/Count Five = comic books/bullfighters and poker playing canines rendered upon black velvet. Garage wasn’t identified as a genre or even as a mode of operation until those clarifying compilations came along, but once they appeared they not only lent a crucial helping hand to ’77 punk but additionally became the foundation for a vital stream of underground rock that’s best exemplified by Wild Billy Childish, The Mummies, The Gories, and the late Jay Reatard. And there it is: all four of those names have their own thrilling non-retro identities, but none of them in my experience fall victim to self-importance or other attitudinal issues. It’s not a matter of being nicey-nice but instead simply understanding the scale of the whole endeavor and acting accordingly. In my universe garage bands are best when self-deprecating or modest, and that’s part of the reason I love Mudhoney without reservation but will always hold at arm’s length the often rather bogus swagger of Brian Jonestown Massacre. And it’s also why I’m quite chuffed with Nobunny’s FIRST BLOOD LP, my first big gulp of Justin Champlin’s attractively oddball garage project. I say odd because anybody that cross-dresses while playing live in a bunny mask is gonna register as awesomely weird in a field that often prides itself on being regular schmoes. If you’re thinking King Khan & BBQ Show, well yeah and I salute yr erudition, but there is also a strong connection to the suavely out sensibility of that grand maniac Mr. Quintron. FIRST BLOOD holds a similar fixation with the simplicity of ‘50s/’60s R&R aesthetics ala Khan & BBQ and a tweaked mentality that’s in league with Quintron at his zesty best, but perhaps it’s biggest stylistic precursor is The Ramones at their most bubblegum reverent (see the album cover of Nobunny’s debut LP LOVE VISIONS for added perspective on this connection). Think Spector, “California Sun” and “Little Bit O Soul”, but filtered through a mindset that rescued the castoffs from an eccentric costume shop out of a stinky garbage dumpster. “Motorhead With Me” illustrates this idea quite nicely, but this fittingly concise record also stabs out in other swell directions. In a fine display of chutzpah, “Blow Dumb” blatantly rips off one of the greatest of all riffs from The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”, “(Do The) Fuck Yourself” simultaneously celebrates and debases dance craze mania and as such is in the fine tradition of The Cramps’ “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?”, “Ain’t It a Shame” recalls punk-era pub rock melodic methodology as issued by Stiff or Chiswick Records, and “Never Been Kissed” throws in some rough keyboard banging that can be traced all the way back to that thorny Memphis miscreant Jerry Lee Lewis. But FIRST BLOOD is best when it reaches far outside the confines of garage orthodoxy with results that can be difficult to confidently tag. “Breathe” starts as a stunted bluesy lope that includes the strange appearance of scratchy violin, in the end falling somewhere between sub-Jimmy Reed style goofing and eclectic DIY pop subversion. And album closer “(I Was On) the Bozo Show” begins as a catchy acoustic ramble before morphing into a circus-like atmosphere that’s maybe vaguely comparable to warped ‘60s novelty junk like Napoleon XIV’s ever maddening “They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!”. Somebody get the net, like fast. Nobunny makes it plain that garage-rock is better suited for having its boundaries stretched by enthusiastic misfits than burdened by the po-faced arrogance of characters that propose their stolen ideas are somehow something new under the sun. FIRST BLOOD is indeed a short spurt but it spackles the wall but good, exhibiting staying power, diversity and sturdy confidence.
It is downright gobsmacking to consider that over ten years has passed since The New Pornographers debuted with MASS ROMANTIC. As Willie wrote and sang much farther back, ain’t it surprising how time slips away? Upon reflection, it’s also noteworthy that MASS, when it hit my ear drums at least, was a decidedly large gulp of joyously fresh air. Because there wasn’t much of anything on the scene in 2000 that sounded both so deliriously and rockingly pop while being so alarmingly large in terms of production sense. The band displayed a huge presence that was unabashedly ‘70s and not a bit punk in design, recalling power-pop on one hand and a closely microphoned heaviness on the other, the latter in line with what I associate with the recording ideals of early Black Sabbath. If that sounds off target, listen to a random track from PARANOID that’s not “Planet Caravan” next to MASS’s title cut or the smashing rocker “Letter from an Occupant” to possibly grip my drift. Even though the New Pornos announced their presence as something approximating a Canadian indie supergroup/side-project, featuring chanteuse Neko Case and the always intriguing personality Dan Behar of Destroyer along with members of such groups as Zumpano, Thee Evaporators and Limblifter, they didn’t really feel in line with the predominant trend of indie operations that at the time was very much under the sway of Pavement, post-rock and Neutral Milk Hotel. This helped them stick out in the crowd, and they were promptly snatched up by the discerning minds at Matador Records for wider distribution. Before seeing them live, I’d pegged them as being in the tradition of early Cheap Trick, but with the added flavor of keyboards, an iron-throated femme vocalist and occasional forays into tasteful Bowie-ish morsels and pop-polished Dylan foibles. But again, that was previous to glimpsing them in the flesh. After that fateful and illustrious night at the nightclub 9:30, I had a new perspective. Imagine if you can dear reader an incarnation of The Partridge Family that instead of whitebread, corny and cloying are refreshingly tough and smartly tart in their approach to a defiantly proud take on Caucasian rock tradition. If this sounds like a lark on my part, please consider that the band’s moniker has been posited as an at least partial riff on the impulse of reframing/renaming well scrubbed and wholesome family acts ala The New Christy Minstrels and The New Seekers. While there is a tangible and crucial thread of darkness in some of MASS ROMANTIC’s lyrics, the band eschew the well worn modes of rebellion and debauchery in favor of celebratory, often life-affirming forward momentum that’s accessible enough to gain the approval of Beatles loving souls transitioning toward retirement. It’s the sound blasting from a stereo of a gas-guzzling ragtop on an impulsive drive to the beach for swimming, dancing, greasy pizza, making out, sing-along’s and intoxicants no stronger than cheap beer. But the New Pornographers are in no way anachronistic, sounding instead positively up to date as they revamp undying ideas for a young century. Leader Carl Newman wisely utilizes the talents of his fellow players, particularly the poetic folky streak of Behar and the thrilling singing of Case, a woman that can wail like a stressed diva overloaded with pure adrenalin. As the albums have hit the shelves the band has refined their sound somewhat, so anybody only familiar with the last few records should really check this one out (and the follow up ELECTRIC VERSION, for that matter). This is intelligent pop-rock blazingly delivered, a strong pill of an album that really feels like a proper album, bum-rushing out of the speakers with peaks and valleys of melodic tension and release to end all too quickly, the kind of record people play three times in a row without thinking twice. And as ten years have unraveled, I don’t feel like I’m jumping the gun one bit when I pronounce MASS ROMANTIC to be a classic.