The Rolling Blackouts: Black Is Beautiful , The Alleged Gunmen: Return To Zero

The Rolling Blackouts
The Rolling Blackouts
Black Is Beautiful
Record Collection

The Alleged Gunmen
Return To Zero

You wouldn't say people in L.A. shouldn't play around with electric guitars, but the only thing you see more of in pawn shops out there are handguns, and the only reason people go into pawn shops is because they booked themselves more bad news than they could handle. And that's because the bullshit life seems so beautiful in California, and that's because it's fun to hold something that makes you feel like you could get into trouble. But out of such bad news came last summer's Let's Get Rid of L.A., a roll-call comp of a scene teetering into temporary stability, and now out of that album come two debut full-lengths from the bands that book-ended Side A--and book-ended the L.A. music misadventure, too. The Rolling Blackouts went up, up, up, recently getting kicked off the Warped Tour for urinary misconduct ("Your punk rock careers are over!" shouted some suit). And the Alleged Gunmen? They're not even in the gutter--someone could still trip over you in the gutter. Maybe the pawn shop guy knows where they are.

The Blackouts' Black Is Beautiful is a Penthouse letter to tube-amp guitar tone, put to tape as engineer (and Stones Throw funk-remaster master) Dave Cooley gamely gives up his rock-'n'-roll-recording cherry. (Did that sound sleazy? Sorry, it's the guitar tone talking.) The mannered Kinks-isms of last year's lost demos are just straight kink now, hiding under '70s coke-and-porno gloss and Blue Cheer/heavy Who riff-'n'-roll, but the Blackouts got the songwriting so neatly set up (every member is an accomplished guitarist) that all they do now is lean back and let it look easy. The Zep drum breaks ("Ms. Bitter") and the Beach Boys harmonies ("Overdrive") kiss together nicely; it's the power ballad finale ("Without Shakin'") that wobbles, but hey--the things we do for the ladies, huh?

The Gunmen never make that kind of sidestep on Return to Zero, and though the fat dub bass and Jackie Mittoo keys ("Broken Spur") make the Sandinista Clash comparisons stick (especially on the songs about revolution), it's singer George Navarro's guitar cascades that really light their comet's-tail career--from fire to ash in one bright streak. Under the cowboy drag (and Morricone lead lines) is a desperate idealism spread so thin you could sneeze through it and a band--to borrow the metaphor they reach for each morning--that knew they only had one good shot. Or, maybe, didn't know. The last song should have been "Return to Zero," a nice shorthand for their no-bullshit philosophies, in which our heroes walk into the sunset to the tune of Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalkin'" (Mr. Narrator: "The righteous ones seek another truth/And the dark seems a bit safer.") But instead the credits roll on pushy honky-tonk piano and lyrics that misfire back at them ("It's time to admit defeat/but before the last tune is played..."). These guys, they never knew what to do with what they had right in front of them. Hope they're staying out of trouble, wherever they are.

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