Bohemian Like the Dandy Warhols
My first and really only experience (until now) with the Dandy Warhols can be relegated to an anecdote: it was the year 2000 and I had gone over to the house of a mutual acquaintance amongst my friends for some chit-chat and a few drinks before heading off to a movie. While we were there, the guest put on the then-new Dandy Warhols album, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, and it played in the background while we sat around in a circle in the living room on sofas and chairs, taking our sips of beer. But the thing I remember most about this occasion is that, some 30 minutes into the album and idle talk, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Hey, is this the same song that’s been playing all this time?” It seemed to me that the record was monochromatic, and a low drone—which, of course, now that I’ve properly listened to the latest version of the record, now remastered and expanded with bonus tracks to celebrate its 13th anniversary (Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia. Thirteenth anniversary. Get it?), I now know this to be not true. Still, there was an opiate feel to the album when I heard it in this setting, which put me off the album for some time—in addition to the fact that I also had a friend at the time working in a record store who was crazy in love with the band because they were so raw and aggressive in many ways: keyboardist Zia McCabe was known to play without her shirt on (or a bra) in a live setting, and this friend was adamant that he read somewhere in a magazine that frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor had boasted about drinking his own urine. (Which, I hasten to add, I cannot verify after doing a current Google search, so take that piece of information with a big, heaping grain of salt.) All of these things added up to me pretty much crossing over to the other side of the street when I saw the Dandy Warhols rapidly approaching on the side I was walking down, such was the band’s reputation for its bravado.
Still, curiosity has lead me back to Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, which represents the band’s high-water mark commercially and critically. On the commercial end of things, the song “Bohemian Like You” would go on to be used in an episode of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in a commercial for Vodafone, ensuring that the band would make enough money to open its own recording studio and rehearsal space in a converted warehouse in its home town of Portland, Oregon, dubbed “The Odditorium”. Critically, a wander through Metacritic reveals statements such as “one of the best pop records of the year”, “a real piece of art”, and “one of the better albums to be released this year”, which might be slightly damning considering that, outside of records maybe by Radiohead, Modest Mouse and Primal Scream, the year 2000 didn’t exactly yield a lot of outstanding discs to my recollection.
However, if Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is anything, it is audacious. That’s because it was designed, however egotistically this may sound, to be the last great rock ‘n’ roll album, front to back, and is meticulously constructed as such, with songs bleeding into each other, leaving no pause for the listener to catch his or her breath. But you have to remember that this was the year 2000, which is about the time that the free-for-all that was Napster was really taking off, and people were less interested in full albums than grabbing whatever pure songs they could get their grubby little hands on electronically for the cost of nothing. So to have an actual album wade into this murky situation is quite the accomplishment, even though Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is less of a serious rock album, and one that’s more pure fun: camped out in the Rock ‘n Roll Hotel at the corner of Sex Boulevard and Drugs Avenue, this is a record that wallows in its own filthy sweat and is an honest distillation of just about every excess known to mankind. There’s a Stones influence, but also a Gram Parsons influence (particularly on the final song “The Gospel”, which sounds a little close to the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Hippie Boy”) along with a touch of psychedelia (especially on the first three songs). There’s an everything and the kitchen sink feel to Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia which makes it equally invigorating but far from cohesive. Still, this disc is a blast, if you let it show you a good time.
Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is extremely front-loaded, as its best songs come right up front in the form of a triptych: “Godless”, “Mohammed” and “Nietzche” are all five-minutes songs with lofty strums, and a hazy cadence to them. There’s a unified slink to these tracks as they all interlock into each other, and they work so well together that they probably led me to believe all those years ago, listening to this album in the background, that they were one and the same. I don’t do drugs, but, if I did, I’d probably want to be tripping out to these three pieces. The buzz does wear off though by the time you get to “Country Leaver”, which is a very tongue-in-cheek blues number that you might be forgiven for thinking that was an outtake from Sticky Fingers. But then there’s “Solid”, which is indelibly catchy and will put “a door in the back of (your) head.” And there’s real swagger on display, too: “I feel cool as shit, ‘coz I’ve got no thoughts keeping me down,” goes one line in the song. There’s also sexy come-ons, such as “Get Off”, which does burrow itself into your brain even though it does feel a little bit like a cast-off because it’s so silly. The same goes for “Shakin’”, which goes to prove that even on the album’s weaker songs, there’s a real celebratory feel to the record that makes one a little weak at the knees. And, of course, one couldn’t talk about the record without mentioning “Bohemian Like You”—I found it hard to believe that I hadn’t really encountered this song before (I generally don’t watch TV), but you listen to it and it feels oddly familiar, as though its riff has percolated into the pop culture consciousness in subtle ways.
This edition of Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia comes with its bonuses, and outtake “Later the Show (a.k.a. Kinky)” , which opens the second disc, is the best thing to be had among the flotsam and jetsam: it’s ridiculously catchy, and it’s too bad this song didn’t make it to the album proper in exchange for a lesser song. (Though it must be said that the valleys on the record only go so far to make the peaks feel all that much more higher.) Aside from that, you get some alternate mixes of songs, which illustrate why they were rejected from the record. Particularly, the alternate “whiny” vocal version of “Godless” does nothing to supplant the whispered and sexy version that appears on the Real McCoy. From there, there’s a whack of four-track demos, which go to show that much of the material was only fragmentary when Taylor-Taylor was laying down and writing the songs: they would go on to become much more expansive, intricate and meticulously mixed once they showed up on the actual LP, which does illustrate just how workmanlike Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is. So the extras are useful from a “how was this album made?” perspective, though hardly the sort of thing that anyone would revisit on a regular basis – so you can pretty much take them or leave them.
Usually, when I review a record, I give it three listens and then render my judgement. With Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, I found myself going to the well more often than that just to get a real bead on what I felt about the record, and found that my feelings were very complex and in a state of constant juxtaposition. Clearly, the record is not what I remembered it to be all those years ago when I first heard it, and was secretly glad to hear and understand that it was certainly much more multi-coloured than I thought it to be. And I do think that, as a whole, it hangs remarkably well together, and can see why some people think this is one of the better albums to come out of the digital filesharing era. However, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is hardly flawless. The thing is, though, those flaws are seemingly appealing and prevent the disc from taking itself too seriously—so there’s that flipside of the coin to consider. In short, this is the type of record you want to have on CD, so you can get flighty from inhaling the sleek, cool smells of the ink in the packaging—that new CD smell—and inhale the sheer sense of cool that practically radiates from this record. Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia really represents the breakthrough moment for the band, and, if the reviews of their following albums are to be believed, they never came this close to representing the cohesion that’s on display here. It is sultry and seductive, and dangerous in equal measure—but with a measure of good humor thrown in to make it less alarming that the band’s reputation of the time would leave one to believe.
Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia simply wants to have fun with you, and it’s a record that you have to really listen to closely to have that sense of wild abandon. Simply putting it on as background music, as that acquaintance of mine did, really makes the record easy to dismiss: Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia might not want to have a long-term relationship with you, but it certainly wants to have a meaningful fling, and it commands you to stand up and pay attention to it while making out to you in the filthiest, dirtiest ways imaginable. When it comes to Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, you better come prepared with protection, as you really don’t know where this record has been. And that makes it all the more alluring and enticing, all of these years later.
- Multiple songs Soundcloud