Sure, the album title denotes air travel, but Finnish quintet the Flaming Sideburns have made a lane change on the rock and roll highway with their latest on Jetset Records, Sky Pilots—that is to say, they’re out of the fast lane. Anyone familiar with the ‘Burns first two albums (2000’s It’s Time To Testify . . . Brothers and Sisters! and 2001’s Hallelujah Rock ‘n’ Rollah) knows the band as a freewheeling, could-fall-apart-at-the-seams-any-minute-now-like-a-good-garage-band-should kind of outfit. Unfortunately, that’s precisely the vitality that Sky Pilots is lacking. Under normal circumstances, this sudden change of gears wouldn’t raise eyebrows outside of a few purists, but here it’s a standout point as the ‘Burns are in the right place (Scandinavia) and the right time (the Great Garage Rock Revival of the early 21st century) for a commercial breakthrough and they opt to throw a curveball. What seems to have happened is that the band has fallen victim to garage rock’s greatest “enemy” (quotations very intentional)—sophistication. And while that bodes well for the group as musicians, it finds Sky Pilots looking up at the band’s earlier efforts.
The first warning sign that things are amiss on Sky Pilots: the album opener, “Save Rock and Roll” is entirely too tame for an album opener called “Save Rock and Roll”. The band seems to be holding back (the amps are only turned up to 8?) and charismatic Argentinean frontman Eduardo Martinez’s howls come across as calculated, not cathartic. It’s even more distressing considering their last album, Save Rock And Roll damn near could have done just that in a perfect world.
Whether the ‘Burns finally got their hands on good recording equipment remains to be seen, but Sky Pilots doesn’t bleed through one’s speakers; it’s hermetically sealed, as if Donald Fagan and Walter Becker decided to turn Steely Dan into a garage group. The riffs are all in place (don’t think the band has forgotten how to rock), but they’re under glass. The guitars break through now and again, fortunately. The Punisher’s low rumbling bass yields to Ski Williams’s dirtiest riff as “Off Direction” opens—but that’s Sky Pilots’ fourth track. “Off Direction” also marks the beginning of Martinez’s fixation with outer space, as the sound recounts an intergalactic energy crisis in 2023. Some of Martinez’s best lyrical imagery pops up in “Effect-O Tequila” when he marks time “Waiting for the UFOs to rise out of the dust”. I can’t claim to understand the sci-fi bent, but in a world where Jack White (the mention of his name thereby fulfilling garage rock CD review requirements) can rhapsodize on math teachers, squirrels, and acetaminophen, anything is possible.
In fact, Sky Pilots’ wide thematic range may be its key selling point. They toss in a cover of Roky Erikson’s “The Interpreter”, that, while not matching, say, “Iron Man” when it comes to tales of outsiders, is creepy nevertheless (and is one of the few tracks to benefit from the squeaky-clean production). Meanwhile, the vaguely-calypso “Effect-O Tequila” finds Martinez (finally) lapsing into Spanish while lyrically dancing, but it’s still too reserved for a dance song sung by as free a soul as Martinez. “Heavy Tiger” comes close to approximating “classic” Sideburns and “Submarine Sensation” is just a good song about fucking, and it jumps out even more since it follows the jangly ode to Mother Nature, “Into the Golden Shade”. An eclectic mix for an increasingly eclectic group.
Maybe the slickness and caution that permeates Sky Pilots can be traced back to its album title. (A chicken and egg exercise if ever there was one, but go with me on this.) The religiously-titled Testify and Hallelujah celebrated the transcendent nature of rock (we’re talking about a Finnish band led by an Argentinean playing music whose locus is Detroit, after all) and worshiped at the shrines of the Stooges and MC5. Sky Pilots, even with its faux-tattered vinyl cover appearance, looks to the future—sonically and as noted above, lyrically. Garage rock may never come to terms with progressivism, and while you can’t fault the Flaming Sideburns for trying, Sky Pilots ends up being grounded.