Merge Records have spent the past year or so celebrating some bigger names in indie rock history, reissuing the entire catalogs from both Archers of Loaf and Sugar, not to mention readying a new album from Sugar (and former Hüsker Dü) frontman Bob Mould due out later this year. Exciting as those releases are, Merge has also quietly been championing the more unsung heroes of rock music over the past few years. They reissued material from the likes of Big Dipper and Volcano Suns -- bands that needed a fresh look -- and now they continue that trend by bringing Redd Kross into the fold.
Redd Kross (the odd spelling came after a cease-and-desist from the International Red Cross in the '80s) have been under-the-radar rock stalwarts for three decades. The California outfit played their first show opening for Black Flag, and from there built a small but loyal fanbase. They signed to major label Atlantic in 1990, but aside from moderate success with single "Annie's Gone," the band never hit it big. They did, however, churn out great records like 1990's Third Eye and 1993's Phaseshifter, among others.
Despite their long history, the band has seen its share of members come and go, but the new record, Researching the Blues (their first in 15 years) features the same line-up that made the band's best '80s album, Neurotica, back in 1987. The line-up -- founding members Jeff and Steve McDonald, with Roy McDonald and Ronald Hecker -- makes no bones about its desire to rock, and this album churns out ten straight-up rock 'n roll tunes in just over 30 minutes. The results are both thrilling and, if you've followed the band, exactly what you might expect.
If there's one thing that's been consistent over the years, despite the line-up changes, it's the way Redd Kross has slowly but surely beefed up their guitar tones, and that continues here. The huge crunch of the opening title track is a far cry from, say, the lean, new-wave edge of Third Eye. It's a song with a towering, arena-rock chorus that sets the album off on the riht stomping foot. It's then followed by the more jangling but also excellent "Stay Away From Downtown." What these songs remind us is that Redd Kross is tight, the riffs here intricate but catchy, and McDonald's voice is both sweet and powerful, the perfect kind of rock charm framing his lines.
The rest of the record doesn't veer much from the path these songs set up. "Dracula's Daughter" plays a bit more on cooing vocal harmonies and smudged chords and "Winter Blues" pares back the distortion in favor of sunny power-pop. "One of the Good Ones" may be the cleanest, more pared down pop tune, but even these derivations follow along narrow rock lines. Still, if you like rock tunes with sharp melodies and earworm choruses, Researching the Blues isn't likely to give you anything to complain about.
It's an album that feels, at its best, effortless. Other moments, however, feel too effortless, and as a result there are some missed opportunities. The songs rely on pretty rote rock tropes -- "One of the Good Ones" has a particularly dated focus on Hollywood -- which can render the basically structured lyrics stale. When McDonald claims "it's hard to believe, there's nothing up your sleeve" you know where the line is going before it gets there, so you go from grooving along with the song to skipping ahead. There's also a lot of vague targets in these songs -- see "The Nu Temptations" -- that seem to warn against insincerity and falseness without ever quite pinpointing where they see it.
And maybe that's not the point. Maybe Researching the Blues isn't about delving into the issues, and it's certainly a perfect kind of summer rock record. It's lively, it's punchy, it doesn't force one single note. But it's also an album that is on the verge of saying a few things while its brings the rock -- no surprise from a band who has plenty to say for much of their career -- so after 15 years, Researching the Blues doesn't miss the mark at all, but there are moments where you might wish it would at least take aim.