By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Garage rock never really goes stale. There's always room for catchy two-minute outbursts of Marshall-wrecking, Cro-Magnon lunacy, and when you've got bands dressing like mummies or spacemen or surgeons, hammering at their Farfisas like total crazies, there's little room for the staid and traditional. But after the Strokes' superswank Jam-style post-modness incited a media frenzy about a "garage-rock" movement that 2001's Is This It didn't quite adhere to (see also: "punk band" Blondie), all the attention led to the rediscovered genre's dilution. Sure, the kink(s)y blues of the White Stripes and the loud 'n' fast Ra-Stones antics of the Hives continue to keep the music vital, eccentric, and fun. But now that the "new sound" has a new name--rockisback--there seems to be a more obvious, less daring, consumer-friendly blueprint for the music. From the smash guitar/fall over grunge-aping of the Vines to the Datsuns' beer-bong boredom, self-parody and dull conservatism dominate the new phase of the rock re-invasion.
Straight from the SXSW spotlight are the D4 and their debut album 6Twenty (Infectious/Fly). No, they're not the D(illinger)4 we all know and love: This is that band from Auckland, New Zealand with gimmick-named members ("Jimmy Christmas" and "Beaver," among others) and nice leather jackets. As beholden to stoopid-fast party anthems as an armada of Andrew W.K.s, yet with far less of W.K.'s cult-leader charisma, the D4 seem content to pantomime the Saints in a desperate attempt to prove their True Rockness. When a band has to start a record with a song called "Rocknroll Motherfucker" just to assert themselves, I envision a large neon sign buzzing overhead, flashing "TRYING TOO HARD." Though, given their other song titles ("Heartbreaker," "Party," "Come On!"), the only thing they seem to be trying very hard at is their rock 'n' roll motherfuckerness--originality be damned.
While the subjects of breaking hearts, partying and... er, "coming on" have potential in the right hands, the D4 make them sound as electrifying as shopping for a new vacuum cleaner bag. Every riff has been carefully constructed from refurbished Urge Overkill scrap metal, stripped of any fuzz, squall, reverb, or feedback that would otherwise give it some desperately needed punch. Christmas's vocals are simultaneously overbearing and apathetic: Every last "yeah" sounds like an "I guess." The weary "Met this chick and..." lyrics and yawning "Show me what-choo got!" yowl of "Little Baby" don't add up to a cocksure come-on-the song's a desperate three-beer exhortation for some bored groupie to flash some tit. And the repeated "I wanna meet-cha tonight" chorus on "Rebekah" holds promise of little else than sitting awkwardly at some skanky dive waiting to see who'll say the word "platonic" first. D4 has a knack for rendering loud, fast, simple guitar rock into flavorless oatmeal, but such is the nature of the cash-in: When you've got coattails to hang on to, there's little room to deviate from formula. Too much originality might alienate the Hot Topic clientele, y'know.
Still, just when you think the new-garage craze is trying a little too hard to save rock, an ostensible "novelty" single oozes the "Disco Inferno" aesthetic all the way to number two on the U.K. charts. Earlier this year, Detroit's Electric Six (formerly the Wildbunch) parlayed "Danger! High Voltage" into a surprise hit accompanied by a manic Jack White chorus and one of the oddest videos ever to bumrush MTV2. (Three words: Glowing. Moose. Crotch.) It's hard to tell what the most outlandish element of the song is: There's a compelling, pseudo-Eurotrash veneer, and the exclamation of "Fire in the Taco Bell!" is the best fast-food name-drop since the Beastie Boys' White Castle heyday. And above it all are the theatrics of singer Dick Valentine, who bellows every word as though he were Iron Butterfly's Doug Ingle struck with how laughably, testicularly bombastic his voice actually sounds.
The two other original songs that join the titular single on Electric Six's Danger! High Voltage EP (Beggars XL), both re-recordings of older Wildbunch songs, have none of "Voltage"'s infectious, Studio 54-mocking strut. But Valentine's maniacal hiccup of a voice adds a fevered desperation to the leather-pants tango of "I Lost Control (Of My Rock and Roll)." And when he belts out "Manipulate me down/Manipulate me up...I've waited yeauhhhhhhhhrs for this!" on "Remote Control (Me)," he turns an otherwise decent-enough T. Rex churner into something simultaneously funnier and a bit more disconcerting: Valentine relinquishes control only because he never really had it.
In fact, it's precisely this lack of control that hoists the Electric Six above the hordes of discount Iggys. Whereas everything the D4 do seems beholden to a faded, sepia-toned textbook entitled How To Rock and Roll, Man (1974 edition), the Six care not for your silly mortal "laws" and "zeitgeists." The band's bombastic sax solos and Les Rhythmes Digitales remixes aren't exactly traditional post-Nuggets prerequisites. But amidst the maelstrom of pedal-down chaos, those elements form the very thing that has kept the garage cult alive for decades: the sound of the established orthodoxy having its party crashed.