[8 May 2009]
There is a short scene in the 2005 documentary All Dolled Up in which replacement drummer Jerry Nolan sits for a haircut in a Los Angeles salon. It’s 1973 and the boys are in town promoting their debut album. Nolan has propped a copy of the record against the mirror and stares intently at his own face on the sleeve while exchanging small talk with the barber. As the camera inexpertly cuts between the drummer and his picture, it becomes clear Nolan brought the album as a reference point for the barber. The New York Dolls had an image, and Nolan was simply doing his part to maintain it. Only a year into his stint with the band, and he already felt the weight of history.
Of course, by the time the band got around to cutting their third studio album in 2006, Nolan was dead, as were lead guitarist Johnny Thunders and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. Frontman David Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain were the only original Dolls to bear the burden of the past. With the help of a few hired guns, they bashed their way through One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This without significantly tarnishing or enhancing their status as legendary proto-punks. Now releasing their second album since re-forming, the reconstituted lineup has matched the studio output of the original band. Too Much Too Late?
Not exactly. Bolstered by the generally positive reaction to their last release, the band seems to be slightly freed from the inherent restrictions of using the New York Dolls moniker. While David Johansen has spent the majority of his career caught up in conceptual shtick (see Buster Poindexter, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, and, uh, the New York Dolls), he allows himself to stretch out a bit on the Doll’s latest ‘Cause I Sez So, taking some stylistic detours that wouldn’t necessarily fit on a self-conscious New York Dolls release.
Take for example the spaghetti western melancholia of “Temptation to Exist”. Anchored by a whistled riff, Johansen sheds his bluesy growl for a vaguely operatic contemplation of existence. Also included is a baffling reggae rework of their 1973 classic “Trash”. Johansen turns in an effectively ragged vocal performance that is mostly unable to justify the song’s existence. So why did the Dolls include the song on the album? Because they’re now comfortable enough to make mistakes. If nothing else, “Trash” is more interesting than just another Stonesey blues rocker that made the last album so monochromatic.
There are still plenty of those here. The titular track, railing against either the paparazzi or an Orwellian police state, works best even if poor grammar and bad boy posturing are slightly unconvincing coming from men in their late 50s. The best songs on the record are a pair of low-key pop tunes in the vein of “Lonely Island Boy”. In “Lonely So Long” and “Better Than You”, the Dolls deliver some of their catchiest song ever, borrowing heavily from the girl group tradition. Johansen is relaxed enough to deliver the best tossed-off line on the album: “My baby / She says my music’s better / It’s much better than it sounds.”
Returning producer Todd Rundgren (who last worked with the Dolls on their 1973 debut) keeps things loose, giving the album a Steve Albini-like live-in-the-studio sound that was such a liability for the Stooges’ reunion disc. Where the Stooges sounded awkward and blustery, the Dolls are confident in the studio—which should come as no surprise considering the new line-up has now been together longer than the original.
No one really expects the Dolls to eclipse or even match the dizzying heights of their first two albums, least of all the Dolls themselves. Now at ease with their legacy, the New York Dolls have allowed themselves to break free from the stifling constraints of their name. Even if the music’s a bit different, the spirit’s still there. And with a band like the Dolls, attitude is everything.