[31 January 2011]
There are theoretically an infinite number of ways to start an album, but several patterns have become standbys in the rock ‘n’ roll playbook. There’s the faux rehearsal (the muffled chatter and amp heartbeat flickering in Radiohead’s “2+2=5”), and then the pretty acoustic guitar strum (Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One”). Probably most mysterious of all when it really shouldn’t be, there’s the naked drum beat. It is the skeleton of any song, but alone it’s capable of kicking up suspense for what muscle and skin will surround it. Personal favorite drum-starters range from R.E.M.‘s Best-Album-By-Anyone-Ever New Adventures In Hi-Fi, DJ Clue’s The Professional 2 and Weezer’s new dark horse since Pinkerton got the corner office, Maladroit. All were fresh-air detours in their respective genres, and now we graciously lay another brick in the wall.
The Dirtbombs, meanwhile, are tearing theirs down. This is the rare band that instantly snagged the ears on first listen, but the honeymoon period was about one LP side long, and then it started to sound like they worshipped tested rock ‘n’ roll patterns with a little too much bowed-head devotion. Naked drum beat aside, suspense was already part of the game plan on Party Store, as it’s been a while since we last heard the Dirtbombs. From the low-slung growl in Mike Collins’ voice, it sounds like the first time he’s heard himself in a while. On opener “Cosmic Cars”, his vocals creak in tune like well-trodden floorboards, a far cry from the wiggly soul man of 2003. If any of Party Store is about doing what’s expected by covering this selection of early Detroit techno songs, it’s over and done before you can say “beer me”.
The party this unsung Detroit band have in store is a strange one, to be clear, but how they work around convention to make it strange is the album’s true delight. The boney garage-funk of “Sharivari” sounds like a noirish Beat Happening, just worried enough about repeating themselves that they’ve tightened the screws, locked the doors and painted the walls black for motivation. Where previous albums like Ultraglide in Black rocked with a somewhat lighthearted vigor, Party Store takes the control and precision to post-punk levels (with a serious tone to match). Paradoxically, by buckling down and making music that simply sounds more focused on artistry, the Dirtbombs have allowed themselves to get looser, and by extension, closer to the feel of a crack live band. Indeed, it is Party Store‘s urge to not merely push but violently shove the envelope, to joyously erase whatever parameters critics have ascribed to them, that makes it such a wondrous listen.
Guaranteed those listens won’t be numbered, with one hairy mole of an exception for the spacey intermission “Bug in the Bass Bin”. A three-note bass motif is the constant thread weaving together military march drums, wobbly feedback and mercurial sci-fi keyboards. You’ll likely sit through all 21 minutes slack-jawed but face forevermore the temptation to hit “skip” (unless sprinkling angel dust on ‘shrooms is your idea of a second date). Yet, this is as essential to Party Store‘s identity as the rubbery art-punk in “Alleys of Your Mind” or the Japanese characters comprising the final title. The wordlessness continues for the remaining four songs, but the relief track—the DFA-worthy “Jaguar”—can’t be discounted just because James Murphy isn’t loudly taking the piss out of himself.
As the bad moon rises, “Tear The Club Up” isn’t as apeshit insane as might be expected, but the studious repetition and slurred vocal slap-back make it seem like there’s a place in this world for a poor man’s Sleigh Bells—and then, like a sweaty dance at a club, it’s over as quickly as it started. Jay-Z may have been first to put out a song called “On to the Next One”, but in redrawing their own blueprint, Dirtbombs wait for no one. Just try to keep up.
In retrospect, some entries in the Dirtbombs’ fine catalogue were too on-the-nose, obviously fun but not too fun to be obvious. After releasing one-off covers of INXS and Suicide, Collins and his chain gang turned themselves into ghost riders, screaming off into oblivion in search of a new new start. Turns out the Dirtbombs have some mystery in them yet, as they stop sounding like a first rate cover band and instead discover the first rate freeek lurking inside; now that’s reason to celebrate.