There’s a song called “16 Tons” on the Dandy Warhols’ newest album that you should know about. Yes, it’s the Merle Travis coal-mining tale, covered prolifically by so many artists, but never by any so outwardly insincere as the Portland power-poppers. The Dandys’ probably don’t have much in their charmed lives resembling the hardships endured by the song’s poor white Appalachian laborers, but instead of checking their privilege, they flaunt it: a filthy bari sax and lead singer/songwriter Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s mock growl mangle Travis’s populist pathos into an ironic, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-like caterwaul. It’s a cringe-inducing misstep, made all the worse by its cavalier attitude toward the source material; to paraphrase a lady friend who was listening with me, “Proletarian alienation: how camp!”
I want you to know about “16 Tons” because it puts the rest of This Machine, easily the shortest and most abstemious thing the Dandy Warhols have ever put out, into proper perspective. Specifically, it unearths vestigial smirks behind “The Autumn Carnival”, “Enjoy Yourself”, “Rest Your Head”, “I Am Free”, and “Slide”, which otherwise register as straightforward radio rock—suspiciously straightforward. How else to take the second-person aphorisms of “Enjoy Yourself”, or the rote Tom Petty-isms of “I Am Free”, than as recompense for the shameless indulgence of their last two albums, Odditorium or Warlords of Mars and …Earth to the Dandy Warhols…?
One option is to take them at face value, I suppose, and assume that This Machine‘s restraint and simplicity marks an attempt by the band to get their ducks in order and recapture the punchy pop magic of, say, 2000’s Thirteen Tales of Urban Bohemia, a career high that constitutes a better best-of than any actual Dandy Warhols best-of. But ever since Ondi Timoner’s damning 2004 documentary Dig!—a compulsory citation for anything written on the band since—giving them the benefit of the doubt has become harder and harder to do. Timoner depicts Taylor-Taylor as a determined poseur, tirelessly mythologizing the Dandy Warhols as a commercially viable version of the glamorously self-destructive Brian Jonestown Massacre and their insufferable lead singer, Anton Newcombe. This ad hoc exposé had the lasting effect of framing their ensuing excesses—psychedelic space-outs, noisy eclecticism, smarmy pastiche and po-mo absurdity in general—as cynical calculations. This Machine could be the custodial move that inevitably follows: an attempt to sober up, as a recent interview with guitarist Peter Holmström terms it, and reward loyal fans who may otherwise soon approach the overextended goodwill of a Weezer fan.
Except the Dandy Warhols don’t make a very good case that they can function as a minimalist rock unit. Like reformed alcoholics who were more fun when they drank, This Machine is alternately sullen and unconvincingly earnest, and inoffensive to a fault. “16 Tons” is obviously an exception to this, and awful as it is, it represents a bold shamelessness that is nevertheless far preferable to the dry, strained hooks populating the rest of the album. Odditorium and Earth have it in spades, though, which drove critics nuts, and though I can dutifully recognize how bad those albums are, I can’t honestly deny their outsize, tawdry appeal. “The World the People Together (Come On)” and “Mis Amigos,” from Earth, and “Love Is the New Feel Awful” from Odditorium are typical of the indulgent, snarky power-pop that corroborates Timoner’s implied accusations against Taylor-Taylor, and God help me, I sort of love them. Their showy clowning is a heady rush of shallow fulfillment.
That shallow fulfillment is central to the Dandy Warhols brand. As our own Evan Sawdey observed about their recent songwriting on Earth, they often forego verse-chorus-verse structures. They always have. Their first two albums especially—Dandys Rule OK and The Dandy Warhols Come Down—are composed less of songs than arena-sized grooves, more often than not grounded by perfunctory, if not incomprehensible, lyrics. The formal rigor of Thirteen Tales is the exception, not the rule. And even then, the pleasures offered are the layers of shoegaze noise that sound more nuanced than they are, and the social satire that sounds more clever than it is. As the appropriately titled The Dandy Warhols Are Sound—the pre-Nick Rhodes version of Welcome to the Monkey House—made abundantly clear, a stripping down does not become them. They’re an object lesson in self-conscious style as substance and that’s the fun of it! Hence the genre tourism and rock nostalgia; hence the persistent device of dropping everything but vocals and the beat for a few seconds; hence the circular logic of soliciting the world’s admiration with an album titled Dandys Rule OK. So when they limit themselves to, say, one guitar part per song, as Holmström estimates they do on This Machine, the Dandys put their stock into a part of their musical process that has as often as not been played down or absent: songwriting.
Which is not to say This Machine doesn’t have its moments. The melodica ballad “Well They’re Gone” and the album-closing “Slide” sustain a precarious melancholy that is at the very least interesting, if nowhere near as disarmingly poignant-in-spite-of-themselves as Dandy classics “Sleep” and “You Were the Last High”. “Don’t Shoot She Cried” is as good a guitar wank as they’ve ever done, as is, for that matter, Holmström’s noise-making throughout. And “I Am Free” recruits a horn section, a Dandys staple ever since Thirteen Tales, to build to something approaching genuine exuberance. But then there’s “Alternative Power to the People”, which sabotages a perfectly good grunge sprint with distorted vocal gibberish. (Earth to the Dandy Warhols: you’re no Mike Patton.) There’s also “SETI Vs. the WOW! Signal”, a limp attempt to channel Some Girls-era Rolling Stones, and “Enjoy Yourself”, which not only recycles the “cool/school/fool” rhyme they exhausted long ago on “Cool Scene”, but apes a chord progression of “Under the Sea.” (Yes, really.)
And then, of course, there’s “16 Tons”. Taylor-Taylor and company’s ironic detachment once made for flamboyant epics of sound. On This Machine, it produces feigned, minimalist gloom that’s every bit as shallow, and what’s the fun in that?