Three albums into their career, the Dandy Warhols aren’t exactly a household name in the United States. While their latter-day shoe-gazing concoction of late ‘60s psychedelia and early ‘70s glam has certainly found critical favor at home, the Portland, Oregon, band has enjoyed the bulk of its success outside of the US. In Britain, for example, the Dandy Warhols have already scored several top 40 hits and have, over the last few years, built up a significant following. They even count among their fans Uncle David Bowie, who enthused over their set at Glastonbury and apparently attended their gig at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in July.
Although Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is perhaps the Dandy Warhols’ most diverse effort thus far, it begins on a familiar, albeit sublime note. Forget the pompous titles of the first three tracks and soak up the 16 collective minutes of this suite of songs. The addictive acoustic strum-along opener (“Godless”) floats on a haze of lazy brass and, without any audible break, then morphs into “Mohammed,” an accomplished American translation of Ride, fashioned from layered guitars, almost ethereal horns and understated vocals. Another seamless transition leads into the epic “Nietzsche.” With its harmonies and big, winding guitar drone, this track brilliantly evokes My Bloody Valentine.
But just when it seems like your eyes are going to be intently focused on your footwear for the duration of Thirteen, “Country Leaver” kicks in with slide-guitar and hand-claps and the mood changes completely—and for the worse, unfortunately. Add Courtney Taylor’s obtrusive, mannered vocals, some banjo and a sample of a horse neighing and you have a trite parody of country rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on Hee Haw. Such goofiness turns several subsequent tracks into novelty songs with little substance.
And while the Dandy Warhols’ admittedly broad palette of influences is impressive, their tendency to be overly self-conscious mars this album. The end results of their genre-hopping are rarely convincing as anything but well-executed, one-dimensional stylistic exercises. “Solid” and “Horse Pills”—for instance—are undeniably infectious pop approaches to Lou Reed/the Velvet Underground, particularly in terms of their lyrical vision and vocal delivery, but they have little else to recommend them. (That the chorus of the latter makes you think of the Offspring doesn’t help matters.) “Shakin’” is just a glammed-up reworking of Kevin Ayers’ “Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes,” and although the scathing single “Bohemian Like You” playfully incorporates a Stones guitar riff, it never manages to be anything but a throwaway number that—much like all of the above—has MTV-for-teens written all over it.
This would all be perfectly OK if the Dandy Warhols didn’t set such a high standard with the opening tracks on Thirteen. Still, there are several redeeming moments. “Sleep” returns to the more understated, and to these ears, more substantial fare of which the band is capable. It’s a delicate retro number complete with an extended section of subtle atmospherics and vocal harmonies that show how well the band can re-work earlier genres, making them their own, as opposed to simply parodying them.
The closing tracks, the mournful “Big Indian” and the dreamy, hymnal “The Gospel,” offer a more subtly compelling take on country music, by the end of which you’re willing to excuse the band for their earlier foray into the genre.
The Dandy Warhols have said that this is their attempt at classic rock. Although it displays a shrewd sense of rock history in its renderings of a wide range of influences, this album gets too caught up in its knowingness and too often settles for the resulting novelty formulae. But Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is also a schizophrenic album that features two very different bands. The Dandy Warhols are at their most engaging and memorable when they don’t take the path of least resistance that is cute formulaic pop.