Losing Their Soles
So what did happen to P.J. Soles?
Unless you happen to be a member of what writer Robert Lanham calls the Waitstaff and Service Hipster set (and you know who you are), you likely have no idea. Soles is the “actress” who “starred” as Riff Randall in the Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Pvt. Wanda Winter in Private Benjamin, Stella in Stripes, and, more recently, Mrs. Purr in 1999’s Jawbreaker. And, of course, no one can forget her role as Ellen Whitby in episode 4.14 of the criminally under-appreciated television “drama” Knight Rider.
Now 54, Pamela Jayne Soles’s most recent work, aside from 2004’s The Mirror Mirror Collection, can be found inside the CD for Chicago rockers Local H. In one of the most elaborate ploys ever to meet a pre-teen crush, guitarist/singer Scott Lucas penned the song “P.J. Soles” and convinced the actress to pose for the CD art. “She was Riff Randall!” he recently gushed to band apologist/cheerleader and Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis. Borderline stalker talk, but amusing nonetheless.
The song itself is what is to be expected from such talk: an immature, moody but somewhat sweet ode (“They’ll never know you like I do”). And it’s also the most interesting thing on the record.
Like the aging cult figure the title of the record evokes, Local H has increasingly become a novelty act. And there’s nothing DeRogatis or any other fan of the band in its heyday can say to justify their decline. They may have rightfully left their post-grunge angst behind, but becoming a cheap knock off of Cheap Trick or a slightly more literate version of the plethora of pop punk poseurs on the market ain’t exactly something to hang your hat on.
The first full track on the album, “Everyone Alive”, is catchy, guitar-crunching fun and sounds a lot like a more produced version of the Lucas/Brian St. Clair (drums) duo in their prime. It kicks ass and could even find its way onto the radio airwaves, an elusive thing since the mid-‘90s for a band that was doing the “White Stripes thing” well before Jack and Meg. It’s all downhill from there.
“California Songs” is juvenile in all the wrong ways. Lucas’s whining about California bands and their songs about Los Angeles grows tiresome in a hurry. “We know you love L.A. / There’s nothing left to say / Please no more California songs”, Lucas blubbers, before outdoing that sophomoric rant with the aside, “ And fuck New York, too”. How goddamn profound! Or is this what Alanis Morrissette would call “ironic”. Dunno. However, the Decemberists’ “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” was one of this listener’s favorite songs of 2003, so “California Songs” aren’t necessarily inherently insipid. Weaselly numbers littered with puerile indignations and utterly predictable guitar work really is never much fun. In fact, for all the distancing the band did from the grunge sound in the early ‘90s, this is the song that has the most direct ties to that Northwest sound. It’s Everclear funneled through a Courtney Love-worthy pitty fest set to music. It’s boring and unimaginative and worlds away from the charm of a song like “P.J. Soles”. How this band is responsible for two songs on such remarkably different ends of the taste spectrum is beyond comprehension.
The next track, “Dick Jones”, has a psychedelic feel to it and is the strongest track on the record. It’s a bit Pink Floyd, a bit classic rock, but with enough of Lucas’s signature guitar sound to kick it up a notch. “Money on the Dresser” is too Soundgarden for its own good. (See how that whole grunge thing really is inescapable?) “How’s the Weather Down There?” Well, it’s partly Replacements but mostly Goo Goo Dolls. The instrumental “Buffalo Trace” is a stoner rock romp, the song that’s most similar to 2002’s Here Comes the Zoo—which included a guest spot from Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. “Heaven on the Way Down” continues with the stoner rock riffs but is a throwback of sorts to the fat, alt rock sound of Superchunk and the like.
“Hey Rita”, despite its Cookie Monster vocals, is an interesting romp. The guitar/drum rave up a few minutes into the track is the most inspired the band sounds on this otherwise lethargic and predictable record. The sad thing (given Local H’s impressive back catalogue) is that this record may actually be the one that gets the band noticed by the ubiquitous “mainstream”. Both “Everyone Alive” and “California Songs” would be considered made for radio in any other band’s hands. And they may very well be. “Everyone Alive” is the type of anthem you expect to find on prime time teen television—just the kind of song, like Phantom Planet’s “California”, that the band claims to detest. Local H on The O.C.? Now wouldn’t that be ironic?