[3 October 2003]
A definite deviation from the tranquil melodrama of Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, the Dandy Warhols’ new album Welcome to the Monkey House demonstrates, as do the three previous albums, that the Dandys are poised to take over the world musically but should definitely not dabble with filmmaking. While the Dandys’ first three albums offer narcoleptic songs like “Green” from The Dandy Warhols Come Down and Bohemia‘s hypnotic “Sleep”, the band seems to emerge from a heroin-inspired haze into the giggly cloud of a bong hit. No doubt, one of the main reasons for the more upbeat, ‘80s-inspired songs is that Nick Rhodes, better known as the keyboard player of glam band Duran Duran, produced the album (which even features a song in which Simon LeBon offers listeners a falsetto that would convince you that he castrated himself just to sing it). But for this evident shift away from a droning croon and towards peppy electronica that is nostalgic of Duran Duran’s work in the ‘90s, Welcome to the Monkey House, which includes a short film directed by leadman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, puts the Dandys on a startlingly refreshing level that nonetheless carries with it Taylor-Taylor’s trademark piss-off sarcasm and drollery. Combined with his scratchy vocals and the ethereally retro sounds which ornament most of the songs, the end result is a melodic pastiche of vocals and sounds that compel the ear to re-think the meaning of harmony, even despite the cacophony of a couple of songs.
One might not expect a band with roots in Portland, Oregon, on just their fourth studio album, to be capable of such a grandiose project, but Monkey House offers listeners songs that feel as if they are distinct psychological moments that capture, like a Polaroid camera within the mind and heart, the internal arguments, conversations, and ambivalences we all experience within ourselves, and how American pop culture infuses itself even unto the depths of our aesthetic psyches. Perhaps this is most evident when one looks at the CD cover, which immediately recalls the cover of the Velvet Underground’s 1967 The Velvet Underground & Nico, or the title track’s references to Michael Jackson and Elastica. Taking the title from Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of short stories of the same name, the album’s title seems, like Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, a political allusion to George W. Bush’s bestial tenure in the White House. Likewise, the lyrics poke fun at awkward life moments through the articulation of heavy bass lines and a collage of synthy blips and sounds as on “We Used to Be Friends”. Taylor-Taylor croons “A long time ago we used to be friends / But I haven’t thought about you lately at all”, the lyrical irony highlighted by his own dive into a falsetto that gives chills. “Plan A” features Le Bon’s ear-defying falsetto against the backdrop of a guitarpsichord that compels one to imagine a troupe of toads dressed in medieval robes hopping up and down as a large hen dressed like Maid Marian performs an opera for King Henry. But this is the sheer brilliance of the album—the strange collages of synthesized sounds compel the mind to imagine equally strange scenarios to accompany each new song.
A mixture of electronic bumps and blips, followed by heavy breaths and a pronounced bass line that sounds like a locomotive trudging up a mountaintop, opens “The Dope”, a homage to obsessions with those who reflect to us our own awesomeness. As is common with Taylor-Taylor’s lyrics, the song pokes fun at yuppie culture in a way reminiscent of the band’s most known radio song from Bohemia—“Bohemian Like You”. This seems to again reflect Taylor-Taylor’s intent on “I Am Over It”, which opens with the sound of someone toking up a bong. In this sense, the song’s objective seems to make fun of the privileges of drug culture, and is thus wry in its irony. However, for all of the album’s sardonic humor and aural innovation, this is not to say that Rhodes does not at times overdo his synth washes to yield songs that confuse the ear and seem somewhat pointless.
Both the lyrics and music of “I Am a Scientist” offend the ears and senses, and one cannot help but wonder if Taylor-Taylor and David Bowie (who co-wrote the song) themselves weren’t smoking pot (or crystal meth) when they wrote the song, which is a jarbled mess of clashing electronic sounds and feeble gibberish that feel like sloppy filler. Equally dubious is “The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone”, which swims in ‘60s sounds by using swirly, distorted vocals but just doesn’t mature into a worthwhile musical exploit that fills a room like the majority of songs on the album. Indeed, these two songs exemplify how, as on Madonna’s Ray of Light album, ultimate synthesization can be overkill in the same way it can serve as aural ornamentation that renders an album refreshing and original.
Beyond these two hurdles lies the sweetest, most sophisticated half of the album. “Insincere Because I” is a dreamy wash of guitars and drumbeats with Taylor-Taylor’s vocals stretching to their most otherworldly limits. Perhaps the most beautiful moment on the album, however, is the catchy “The Last High”, which gently oscillates between odd blips of electronica and a lovely orchestration of guitars and synthesized strings that heightens Taylor-Taylor’s whiny crooning to an orgasm of rich sounds skillfully textured by Rhodes’ use of synthesizers and beats. “The Last High” was co-written by Evan Dando of Lemonheads fame, yet it strangely accomplishes so much more musically than “I Am a Scientist” does despite its Bowie-esque star power.
The tunes that follow continue to showcase the band’s uncanny ability to come together and create striking collages of acoustic and electric guitars cushioned by Taylor-Taylor’s signature crooning. Of particular note are “Heavenly”, which opens with a gentle electric guitar but moves into a refrain with layered vocals laid on top of loud electric guitars, and “Hit Rock Bottom”. The latter song successfully takes a stab at what “The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone” tries to do but fails at—using psychedelic ‘60s funk in a way that complements the rest of the song’s direction. This final note also leaves us with Taylor-Taylor’s brilliant wit as he sings, “You ain’t got music if you ain’t got muscle—oh yeah!” Again, one’s imagination is inspired to wander off and daydream of Austin Powers in a gold-sequin jock strap disco dancing at the Playboy Mansion and other such silly things. Perhaps it is this very quality that threatened Capitol Records and prompted the label to reject the Dandys’ second album (which spawned the coveted single “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”), but can we expect sharkish record executives to have a refined sense of creative aesthetics or to mull over the relationship between innovative music and individual listeners’ imaginations?
Welcome to the Monkey House includes an added feature: the enhanced CD contains a short film written and directed by Taylor-Taylor called “The End of the Old as We Knew It”. The film is an attempt by Taylor-Taylor to transfer his verbal sense of political awareness into a visual arena, but it fails on a number of levels and is extremely problematic in what it chooses to represent. The short, in fact, undermines the album’s melodic brilliance, and should only be viewed if you are really, really bored. A camera pans a red sitting room in which a number of white 20-somethings (including Taylor-Taylor and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots) sit amongst bottles of wine and, well, bitch about the world with such profound statements as “I never really got it, ya know?” The very fact that this coterie of hipsters is very pretty and all white implicitly indicates that Taylor-Taylor may not realize that non-whites also think about the state of politics in the world and are, ironically, more often than not the victims of American imperialism and white, Western violence as history has demonstrated for centuries through the global politics of slavery, scientific racism, colonialism, apartheid, segregation, etc. The net effect is that these folks seem like air-headed hipsters tripping out on Ecstasy, who are more concerned with the coolness of their t-shirts than with thinking about world violence and nuclear warfare in a truly philosophical, politically responsible, and critically self-reflexive way.
The script thus comes across as shallow and exclusive, the characters nothing more than white trust fund brats who have the time and luxury to sit on their asses in a swanky living room ruminating over concerns that will never touch their lives beyond the fictional realm of the short (nor will they necessarily touch the lives of anyone they know since everyone is white). One keeps hoping someone will pick up and read a book, but we are not so lucky. Ironically, the one scene that keeps looping is what I would say to the actors in equally as many loops: “Wait—just shut the fuck up!” Not even the commendable framing and cinematography, the soundtrack of machine gun firing and violent yelling, or the image of the infamous mushroom cloud catalyzed by nuclear detonation saves the short from feeling elitist and non-political. Invest the time you would spend watching the film in listening to the album over and over and over again—it will be a much more rewarding experience, and will inspire your imagination to come up with fewer pedestrian thoughts and images than those Taylor-Taylor would torture fans with in his lackluster short.