Some bands you’re supposed to like. They’ve got an angle—something unique in their background or composition that either makes them chic enough to avoid serious scrutiny (were the Strokes really ever that good?) or likable enough to make the listener want to root for their success. We’re all familiar with these outfits; they seem to come out of nowhere, revealing their presence through a hip friend who knows everything about the music scene and swears they’re the next biggest thing. Then the local press throws accolades in the band’s direction, a big-time critic or two jumps on board and, well, you’d be completely ignorant to not reference the band the next time you talk music at the bar. You are, after all, the most devout student of rock ‘n’ roll in your gang.
The Dials are one such band. They’re girls. They’re cute. They’re sassy. They play punk rock. They write lyrics about guys. They sound like the playful gals in the bar who will indulge you just long enough to tell you to go to hell at the end of the night—after you’ve picked up the tab. And worse yet, you’d brag to your friends the next day about being used by such goddesses. Yes, the ladies in the Dials not only look killer in dresses, they also know rock history, borrowing freely from it in their songs. With all this going in their favor, it’s little wonder this band is the one you should name-check before anybody else you know does. But do the Dials actually deserve the hype?
Upon first listen, the Dials seem like any other punk-influenced band. They rely on a few chords, repetitive riffing, propulsive drumming, and lots of snarling attitude. You can almost hear the disdainful sneers on their faces. Moreover, their particular brand of punk is most easily categorized as pop-punk, that genus of punk rock that garners quite a bit of vitriol, most of it deserved. After all, many of the pop-punk bands are products of the dreadful, deprived streets of suburbia, and lord knows life is rough there.
However, after repeated listens to Flex Time, the Dials’ debut LP, something more substantial emerges than just another band whining about their privileged backgrounds as middle-class Anglo-Americans. In fact, the Dials are too busy rocking to whine at all. And while they might play with a limited musical vocabulary, they know how to make the most of their skills. Songs like “Bye Bye Bye Bye Baby” and “Sick Times” display playful phrasing and catchy harmonies, much like the girl groups of the ‘60s. Indeed, the label pop-punk is too limiting and convenient, for while the Dials are no doubt influenced by the Ramones, they also evoke the geometric structures of Television, the post-modern sensibilities of new wave, and the aforementioned Spectorian groups. In other words, like the best punk bands, the Dials transcend a very limiting genre by referencing others.
Musically, the Dials rely on the two-guitar attack of Rebecca Crawford and Patti Gran. Rather than just furiously riffing through each song, the two take turns playing rhythm and lead. In “Flex Time”, the guitar work is angular and symmetrical, possessing a mathematical beauty that somehow sounds both controlled and frenetic. Such inspiration also appears in “Take It to the Man”, but the robotic riffs are juxtaposed with distorted rhythm work. Crawford and Gran aren’t virtuosos, but they create substantial damage with their modest arsenal.
But where the Dials really succeed is in attitude, which manifests itself in the lyrics of the songs; many of the songs possess a feminist bent that subverts the traditional male-predator/female-prey relationship. “Rotten”, for example, features a simple, sexy refrain of “Rotten boy” repeated over and over while the drums and guitars build to an explosive climax. Sure, this is no Dylan lyric, but Dylan can’t sing like a goddess in heat, either. In “Do You Want Me”, Crawford warns, “Say what you will / Cause I can tell / What you’re all about…” The effect is both scary and alluring, much like the Sirens sending out their seductive wail of demise.
Tragically, drummer Doug Meis (the only male member in the band) lost his life in a car accident this summer. Meis’ drumming was the glue of the Dials’ sound, simultaneously grounding the often acrobatic guitar work of Gran and Crawford while fueling the songs’ explosive structures. The rest of the band has vowed to go on, and they should; the Dials sound like much more than the Next Big Thing. They sound like a band that just might make a contribution to the story of rock ‘n’ roll. It just so happens they’re both chic and likable; most of all, however, they’re good.