There’s a certain distaste to exploiting something impoverished for aesthetic purposes. That goes as much for economic circumstances as it does for works of art. Passes can be granted, for example to the Jesus & Mary Chain for their work on Psychocandy. The sonically destroyed wall-of-feedback sound quality of the recording was arguably a consequence of apathy more than intent. Theirs was not a desire to sound worse than their potential. It was a desire to record loud and raw while timidly hiding in the shadows of their own cacophony. I feel the same way about the recent work by A Place to Bury Strangers or the Raveonettes and even most of the catalog of the Strokes. The major difference between all these records is that the latter ones don’t skimp on the benefits of modern production. They sound great despite the layers of feedback and fuzz. Bass Drum of Death’s new self-titled LP reaches for similar territory with heavy hooked noise-pop, but, despite access to all the modern conveniences, the balance just isn’t right.
The heavily distorted snare roll which kicks off “I Wanna Be Forgotten” is so high in the treble spectrum that it borders on static rather than a crisp snap. Most of the snare drums on this album have a similar quality (or lack thereof). The guitar which is, of course, the only instrument which sounds very much at home draped in veils of shimmering, clanging distortion, is delightfully performed pop rock. The songwriting is equally strong and each track on the record sounds like the jukebox of a retro Drive-In Diner as re-imagined by someone whose only experience with the era is from vintage recordings. That someone is Oxford, Mississippi’s John Barrett. The original member, he reportedly records his records entirely on his own, often performing with nothing more than a kick drum and a guitar, though lately he’s running with a second guitar and drummer. Sadly that new depth seems to be oppressed by the desire to flatten every sound.
“Such a Bore” is what might happen if Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli were taught to play guitar, transported to 2013, and given some modern narcotics. “No Demons” and “Bad Reputation” follow suit often recalling the Ramones’ simplicity with none of the practiced or tight delivery. The generous reverb endows every riff with a neon glow and the smell of cheeseburgers and fries served on an open car windowsill.
“Faces of the Wind” slows things down but in doing so really brings to the surface the largest problem with the record – Barretts’ hollow vocals. It’s entirely unclear whether the heavily applied effect is intended to sound “old school” or just hide an insecurity with this vocal delivery. Recording the same record with a balanced, unfiltered or even heavily produced vocal quality would have had a significant positive impact without necessarily having sacrificed the vintage quality. This is demonstrated superbly by Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside. Sounding old doesn’t have to mean sounding bad. When the inexperienced look upon historical artifacts we have a tendency to think the medium was inseparable from the message. Our rock ancestors recorded like that because we hadn’t yet developed options. The retro sound is awesome – King Khan and BBQ’s The King Khan and BBQ Show LP is a perfect example of exactly what Bass Drum of Death are trying to do, but done with a higher quality rating. Retro recording is overrated. So when presented with the ability to do far better, in cases like this, we can only wonder why Bass Drum of Death chose not to. Their songwriting is fantastic and the melodies are extremely catchy but overall It feels like a lack of effort – a cheap gimmick – especially when they’ve clearly got the chops to pull off something greater.
And yet, putting that one large complain aside, it’s still a great album.