Three years ago, garage rock was a term most people used to describe the racket the neighbor kid’s band made every Tuesday night. But to those in the know, the term referred to a group of bands bubbling just under the mainstream surface — a group interested in bringing back the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the 1960s and ’70s, stuff like Raw Power and Kick out the Jams. These bands were from a blast from our rock ‘n’ roll past, with names that hinted at a fondness for the British Invasion, old Marlon Brando/James Dean movies and sweet things, like peppermints.
They say when people start talking about a trend, it’s over. When the Rolling Stones asked the White Stripes to open dates for them, it was clear garage had gone “mainstream.” The more popular the movement became (i.e., the more radio play bands like the Hives, the Vines and the Stripes got), the more the majors started to take notice. Labels like Estrus, Sub Pop and Sympathy for the Record Industry, which gave these bands a chance long before anyone gave a damn, were suddenly being looked at for leads. Bands were scooped up and albums were pressed, and record stores previously pushing the new Britney Spears record suddenly had whole sections devoted to “garage.”
While some optimistic soul out there would like to think the proliferation of “our” music meant we’d won, and thus turned the tide away from pre-packaged pop, the more cynical among us were waiting to see what was going to happen next. Predictably, the Stripes’ first major-label release got rave reviews from critics old enough to be their grandparents, and housewives continued vacuuming to Is This It?
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the CD player.
A second generation of garage bands began popping up, records in hand, angling for a piece of the pie. Many had been around for awhile, paying their dues in dank, dark holes, plugging their independent releases shamelessly and entertaining the same 25 fans night after night. Some of these bands were genuinely interesting, as in the case of the Datsuns, but many of them weren’t. They were simply hangers-on, so-so acts with a good song or two, but nothing really unique to set them apart from the pack. Most of these bands got lost in the shuffle, but occasionally, a record or two still crossed the review desk.
Which brings us to Raw and Rare, the newest release from Detroit band the Von Bondies.
Right out of the gate, it’s necessary to ding the band for using the term “raw” for their album title. Reasons? Raw equals Iggy equals Detroit circa the 1970s. Nowhere in that equation do I see the Von Bondies, and nowhere on this record do I hear anything worthy of the comparison. To be blunt: the Von Bondies are a mediocre band, certainly not living up to the praise of liner-notes writer Martagne Wallace, who claims the group is “the band that does everything (and does most of it better than anyone else).” The decision to record a live album probably stems from the old “Wish we could capture the energy of our live show” argument. However, the best garage bands out there can produce good studio records. Consider the Stooges, or more recently, the Flaming Sideburns. But the Von Bondies’ songs feel forced, a nod to punk here, a wink at glam there, a wave at the blues here — Raw and Rare comes off as a primer course in the Von Bondies’ influences.
The introduction to “Lack of Communication,” with its simplistic rock swagger and fuzzed-out guitar, comes across as a mishmash of the Strokes, BRMC and the Stooges, while tracks like “Nite Train” mine the American blues vein. On “It Came From Japan,” the group tries to capture the energy and sounds of New York punk, but the execution is weak at best. Call it punk on a respirator. “My Baby’s Cryin'” switches gears, highlighting female vocals to a mesmerizing, sex-kitten effect. One of the best tracks on the album, it captures the proto-rock sensibility of 1950s-era guitar slingers, who owed as much to Nashville and surfers as they did to Elvis Presley.
In short, this album would have fared much better had it been released before garage became passé. Taken on its own merits, the Von Bondies is a capable, if unremarkable, addition to the canon. While there are much better albums you could buy, there are also much worse. At the end of the day, perhaps that is a compliment after all.