Critics frequently speak of a garage rock revival, as if garage rock experienced a Golden Age when it was prevalent and popular and has since died out. This fundamentally misrepresents garage rock, which is a less a style than an ontology. Bands didn’t set out trying to play it—they tried to play like the Beatles or the Stones, but through a lack of funds, technology, or talent ended up with garage rock. Such music was never popular; in fact its definitive characteristic was that it could never be popular. Those who initially championed the music as a genre were smitten at least in part with the tremendous gap between the bands’ fervent and earnest wish to be as famous as the pop stars they emulated and the reality of their assured obscurity.
In the early ‘80s, when the Cynics formed a band to essentially commemorate the garage aesthetic, they might have thought that their career would likely be as marginal as the nobodies they sought to imitate. After all, as a celebration of grandiose ambitions and certain failure, the taste for garage was pure camp, which inherently limits the music’s appeal to a certain cognoscenti. In this case, those few pasty male record store denizens who might actually have had access to the once impossibly rare original garage sides, which generally turned up only on semi-bootleg compilations released with very limited distribution. The early Cynics records, with their careful reconstruction of a primitive, dated sound, and with their careful choice of superb rarities to cover, were basically made for an elite club of knowing record collectors whose hearts were warmed by the idea of a band eschewing trends (and mainstream success) by throwing themselves back to a time that seemed to precede trendiness.
But in the eight years since the last Cynics album, 1994’s Get My Way, garage rock has gone from being the refuge for the trend-weary to being one of the hottest trends in the music industry. With new bands apparently adopting the style as a means to attract major label attention, one might cynically suspect the Cynics of coming out of their de facto retirement to cash in. But that wouldn’t be fair—there was nothing calculated about their initial attraction to garage, and nothing else in their approach has changed over the years. Living Is The Best Revenge picks up where all of the previous albums left off. They still maintain a rigorous, almost academic fidelity to the precepts of fuzzy guitars, a few simple chords, two-or-three-note riffs, whiny vocals and lyrics that confront the garage rocker’s once inevitable reject-hood by alternating between broken-hearted lamenting (“Let Me Know”) and a desire for revenge (“Revenge”). (Part of what is so misguided about labeling bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the White Stripes “garage” is that they fail to meet that fundamental criterion of being losers or persecuted outsiders. Wildly popular, slavishly hyped and eagerly applauded, such groups are the ultimate insiders.) Also there are two obligatory covers, a tired reading of the 13th Floor Elevators’ “She Lives in a Time of Her Own”, and a sufficiently ferocious and undoubtedly redundant take of the Satans’ “Makin’ Deals”. To be sure, the Cynics go through their own songs with unremitting conviction and intensity, and that’s not just because they play loud and shout a lot.
Sure, there is plenty of that, and there is a consistency to much of the Cynics’ work that defies you to distinguish one track from another. There is little in the way of production in evidence here (probably on purpose), which shows in the monotony of the recording’s texture. But in the craftsmanship of furious, propulsive tracks like “Turn Me Loose” and “The Tone”, one can sense their humility before the genre they so evidently love. In the purity of their devotion, which suppresses personal idiosyncrasies and misbegotten attempts at uniqueness, they tend toward that absolute anonymity that characterizes most real garage bands. Their music becomes generic, in the best sense of the word.
Still, the Cynics’ music, regardless of its literal content, is always about how much they love classic garage. Listeners would be better served ferreting out that actual stuff from the ‘60s, which, thanks to Internet commerce and some monumental CD reissue campaigns, is now readily available (one could, for example, start with the Pebbles comps and work one’s way up to the Rubble and the Teenage Shutdown series). They never quite beat the paradox of their career, that they are trying to make a profession out of doing something that must be amateurish by the very definition they themselves would probably put forward. At any rate, the Cynics pay homage to the garage spirit far more effectively in their live performances, where their energy and the music’s immediacy conjure a sense of what finally makes the genre great above and beyond its camp value. If one pays attention and becomes swept up into their show, one has the sense that the ability to rock doesn’t rely on media puffery and celebrity notoriety; that enjoying rock truly can be a liberating, democratic experience in which one discovers a larger sense of oneself, not by wishing that one could be someone else on stage, but by being fully aware of oneself as a member of a crowd having a good time. The Cynics’ records only work as souvenirs of this feeling; if one hasn’t seen them live, more likely than not the records will leave no particular impression.