So can we now finally say that The BellRays are officially caught up? For the last four years, it’s been nothing but re-releases and compilations from the Los Angeles band. Following their well-received 2002 album Grand Fury, they released the cool, UK-only best-of compilation Meet the BellRays, an attempt to break into the UK market in the same way The Hives had done the previous year with their similar disc, Meet the Hives. That same year, the band released their debut demo cassette In the Light of the Sun for the first time on CD, and in 2003, the solid Raw Collection CD culled the band’s many 7-inch singles, compilation tracks, and outtakes onto a single disc. The fact that each of those albums was released on a different indie label was confusing enough, but when The BellRays released their fifth album The Red, White & Black in the UK in 2003, and not in North America, confusing became frustrating for some fans of the band. Now, thanks to Alternative Tentacles (record label number four in the last four years), those of us Stateside finally have a chance to pick up a non-import copy of The BellRays’ new, well, sort of new, album. Despite the rather haphazard way of putting out their music, this is a band that’s so good, any new CD is welcome, be it new material or old.
And seriously, how can one not like The BellRays? Theirs is a sound completely their own, a furious combination of abrasive punk and impassioned soul singing. It’s all about the way the band’s two leaders work off each other, an enthralling combination of catharsis and spirituality; guitarist Tony Fate provides roaring, distorted riffs that sound heavily indebted to the MC5 and Black Flag, while ace singer Lisa Kekaula belts out her lead vocals as if she’s leading a gospel revival instead of a gritty garage rock band. Over the last year or so, Kekaula has become considerably more well-known among music hipsters, thanks to her stalwart vocal turn on “Good Luck”, the best single from Basement Jaxx’s 2003 album Kish Kash, so what better time than now to show new listeners how well her voice meshes with simpler, raw guitar rock?
Kekaula, despite the love from producers like Basement Jaxx, remains woefully underrated, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best kept secrets. Her voice is without peer, and there’s not a female singer in punk rock who can match her, a fact that’s driven home with the usual astonishing power on The Red, White & Black. Opening with a great, 60s soul bassline by Bob Vennum, “Remember” erupts into an exuberant punk jam, Eric Allgood providing raucous drum fills, and Fate delivering extremely tight, melodic riffs that greatly resemble Bob Mould’s work on the early Husker Du Albums. The whole gospel revival-goes-punk thing is something The BellRays have done for years now, but it works every time, as on this track, as the band echoes Kekaula’s impassioned singing, like a congregation exhorting a preacher. When the lady cranks up the intensity, it’s thrilling, as Kekaula channels “River Deep Mountain High”-era Tina Turner, but equally impressive is when she tones down her singing a touch, as on “Street Corner”, the more mainstream-sounding “You’re Sorry Now” (which previously appeared on Raw Collection), and the slinky “Used to Be”.
Still, it’s the fire and brimstone that keeps you hooked, thanks to searing tunes like “Black Is the Color”, “Revolution Get Down”, and especially the dark “Voodoo Train”, which injects the band’s punk sound with a heavy blues influence, and coupled with Kekaula’s mesmerizing voice, it’s a spine-tingling combination. The album reaches a peak on the vitriolic “Poison Arrow”, a fascinating combination of spoken word, old-time sermonizing, and extremely abrasive riffs by Fate that echo Greg Ginn’s classic Black Flag licks. The song ebbs and flows strangely, fiery one second, introspective the next, before reaching a climax as Kekaula takes the song home, intoning, “We are the dead/Glass is broken/Newborns choke on their own reflection,” as the rest of the band chants repeatedly, “We are the dead!”
A very worthy follow-up to Grand Fury, The Red, White & Black offers little variation from their previous releases, but when it’s done so well as The BellRays manage do each time out, we’ll take anything they give us. Once you get this band in your system, the hunger for new music doesn’t subside. Now that this 18 month-old album is at long last available over here, here’s hoping the next record will arrive on these shores much sooner than later.