Imagine the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie stares in awe at his father’s shiny new leg lamp and excitedly gawks at the glow of “electric sex” in his living room window. Listening to We Ragazzi’s Wolves with Pretty Lips essentially provides the same level of gratification; it’s a brothel-ready soundtrack without any sense of shyness.
Wolves is the third album from the Chicago-based trio, which has attempted to keep no wave on the map since forming in 1997. Supporting vocalist/guitarist Tony Rolando are keyboardist/initial farfisa organist Colleen Burke and drummer Alianna Kalaba, the latter making a comeback after departing post-quarrel at the close of a 1999 show in Memphis. It was the same tour-concluding clash that caused the band to break up for a year and release 2002’s The Ache with a temporary drummer, Tim McConville. Supporting their sophomore effort by opening for Les Savy Fav and the Detachment Kit, the group returned to its original lineup and recorded its third album under a third label — their first and second were released by My Pal God and the Self-Starter Foundation, respectively.
Backed by a swarm of heavy drum beats, keyboard stomps and his own insanely strong guitar riffs (sounding not unlike Sleater-Kinney, sans keyboard), Rolando — and please refrain from asking about Dawn — hands his listeners some heavy petting on a platter. He may not be as British as Mick Jagger, as soulful as Ian Svenonius, or as dead as Jim Morrison, but what separates him from such iconic front men is that he maintains a strong (and necessary) presence without overpowering his band. In fact, preserving the basic style of eighties art-rocker James Chance, Rolando layers his confident shriek over experimental rhythms. He leads his band in opting for the purer aspects of no-wave art-rock, permitting more intense bands like the late Black Eyes to wallow in the indulgence and sound experimentation that’s also found in jazz-influenced music from the early eighties.
Still, Rolando — though clearly in need of a good nasal decongestant — doesn’t let his voice merely blend into the songs. Maybe he stands out because he oozes charm. Or, because of the concentrated sensuality he provides. Rarely does a single voice deliver as blatantly sexual lyrics as We Ragazzi. Take the openly sexual themes of “Soft Screams”: “I don’t wanna listen to your talking/ I just wanna hear myself scream.” Or, of “When Young Lovers Have No Place to Go”: “There’s a place we could be/ if you wanna get in the bushes with me.”
We Ragazzi could, in fact, be a group of horny bastards who’d be best off performing in some sketchy singles bar. But read their lyrics thoroughly and notice how a desire to scream is actually a precedent to the less satisfied. “In the white noise of American conversation/ I long for one voice/ and that voice is mine/ So give me silence/ so I can sing my song/ and I let you know when you can sing along.” The urge to be a shrubbery recluse? Just a desire to escape an imperfect and imposing world for the sake of enjoying young love.
The highlight, “When Young Lovers Have No Place to Go,” shares the same memorable guitar riff and desperate, whimpering plea found in The Ache‘s “I Want You 2 Love Me So Much I Can’t Stand Up.” What makes the former more worthwhile is that the band ditched the Prince-like song titles they were likely sick of taking criticism for, demonstrating a slight willingness to develop. We Ragazzi proves with Wolves with Pretty Lips they are more capable of writing mature lyrics and intriguing compositions than they might get credit for. All they’re missing at this point is some damn allergy medicine for Tony Rolando.