If you take a listen to any of the BellRays’ songs from the past couple years, such as “Fire on the Moon” or “Blues for Godzilla”, the first thing that grabs you is the raw, heavy guitar that sounds straight from the MC5 or the Stooges from eons ago. But when that voice, that voice, comes in, you’re floored. You’re hearing BellRays singer Lisa Kekaula sing her guts out, sounding as if one night in 1969, Iggy took ill, and Aretha Franklin decided to sit in with the rest of the Stooges. This comes across as a real shock, because when we hear contemporary punk, we’re either hearing 30-year-old white males trying to sound like they’re 13, or more white males trying to sound as masculine as they can while whining about how daddy didn’t hug them when they were kids, or still more white males desperately trying to sound British. Who had that famous quote about how white boys, unable to compensate for the content of soul in their songs, instead cranked up the volume as loud as they could to compensate? The BellRays have the volume, and they also have the soul. Talk about having the best of both worlds.
It turns out the BellRays have a longer history than the past two or three years, and we all now have an opportunity to hear for ourselves the BellRays in their infancy, thanks to a remastered CD version of their original cassette-only debut album, In the Light of the Sun. The thing is, it’s surprisingly normal. Not in a bad way (bad, this CD soitanly ain’t), mind you. The album, instead of being raw, adrenaline-fueled garage rock, is a more laid-back, mainstream attempt at a 1960s soul revival. With horns, for criminy’s sake! In fact, some tunes are so impressive that you wind up thinking they’d fit well on an extra, tenth disc on that Stax/Volt Singles anthology from a few years back.
If today’s version of the BellRays could be described as sounding like the MC5 or Stooges, then In the Light of the Sun is more like a cross between the Black Crowes and Lone Justice’s 1986 debut album, with a whole lotta Detroit soul. “Crazy Water” is straight-up, old-school soul with a swanky bassline, as Kekaula confidently belts out, “How close can I climb / Before it all comes tumblin’ down?” “Wandering Spirits” has a slight ska influence, and is peppered with some delightful scat singing by Kekaula. “Footprints on Water” combines sultry, dusky verses with sumptuous choruses carried by a descending bassline and organ. “Same Ground” turns up the funk several notches, while both the title track and “He’s Gone Wrong” has that Lone Justice feel, smoothly combining soul and country-rock. When Kekaula asks seductively, “Can I make you want me?” in the song that bears the same title, you feel like replying, “You go and do whatever the heck you like, Lisa.” “Blue, Blue, Blue” is a sinister swing tune that has Kekaula howling like Diamanda Galas, and “The Ghost I’m After” is a nasty little blues number. “Tell Me What You’ve Been Working On” hints at the emphasis on distorted guitars The BellRays would adopt later on.
In the Light of the Sun sounds like a band testing the waters, trying out various styles, and for the most part, they manage to succeed. I don’t think it’s as exciting as their more recent output, but that’s not to take anything away from this album, which is a real pleasure to listen to. It’s just a bit more middle-of-the-road, and I like the gutter version of the BellRays more. Anyone who isn’t familiar with the BellRays would be best off to give a listen to the UK import Meet the BellRays, a CD that combines the best tracks from their U.S. albums Grand Fury and Let it Blast, the same format successfully used by labelmates the Hives. I’d recommend In the Light of the Sun to either devoted fans of the band or people looking for some soul music that sounds more authentic and sincere than blander fare like Alicia Keys. It’s raucous, energetic, and fun.