I can’t speak for any other critics, but I am officially retiring the phrase “the band’s secret weapon is [bandmember]‘s [somewhat odd instrument, given the band’s genre],” as in, “the band’s secret weapon is Bill Smith’s jew’s harp, which gives their hip-hop tunes an authentic Reconstruction-era feel.” Why am I throwing the rock-crit gauntlet down, at my own feet? Firstly, such phrases constitute lazy, clichéd writing. And second, the phrase isn’t true, at least in the case of Atlanta-based garage rockers the Forty-Fives. Based on the countless reviews for 2002’s Fight Dirty in the press packet accompanying their latest, High Life High Volume, the band’s alleged secret weapon is Trey Tidwell’s Hammond B-3 organ. Since when was an organ a secret weapon in a garage band? Hasn’t anyone listened to Nuggets before? And more to the point, High Life High Volume is a damn fine rock record, and if there is any justice in the world, the Forty-Fives and their “secret weapon” won’t stay a secret for long in the rock community.
With the semantic and grammatical griping out of the way, let’s get to the matter at hand: the album review. Simply put, this album rocks. The Forty-Fives may hail from Atlanta, but in creating High Life High Volume, they’ve recruited the best Detroit has to offer. They scored a coup when they landed Motor City legend Jim Diamond (who has tweaked the knobs for Motown bands like the Go, the Dirtbombs, and the White Stripes) to produce the album, and recruited the Dirtbombs’ very cool frontman Mick Collins to both play harmonica on “Go Ahead and Shout” and contribute good all-around mojo (if you listen carefully, you can hear the mojo). Diamond (and Collins, and of course the Forty-Fives themselves) has a knack for making brand-new tunes sound both brand-new and about 40 years old at once. Much of that vibe is owed to the palpable sense of fun the band is having in the studio (ya know, back 40 years ago when people had fun making records). Opener “Who Do You Think You Are” is a free-wheeling slice of old-school garage, and the band piles Tidwell’s organ on top of Bryan Malone’s guitar and a soulful horn section, to boot. And everybody gets their own solo! It’s Fun with a capital-F.
That Fun runs through the whole album. “Go Ahead and Shout” and “Bad Reputation” are hard-charging blues numbers, fueled by a rhythm section of bassist Mark McMurtry and drummer Adam Renshaw that comes on like a freight train barreling from Atlanta to Memphis to Detroit. The band catch their breath with the friendly, loping instrumental “Backstage at Juanita’s”, but then it’s right back to tearing ass through a cover of Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rolling Stone”, the silly “Junkfood Heaven”, which mines the same sonic ore as the Flaming Lips or the Supersuckers (for those among you needing a frame of reference) and the countryish “Bicycle Thief” ... I could keep going, but I’m running out of songs.
High Life High Volume (shouldn’t that be a summer concert series sponsored by Miller beer? Just sayin’, is all) marks three excellent albums in a row (1999’s Get it Together and 2002’s Fight Dirty) from one of the better garage bands on the scene. Regardless of whether or not they possess a musical secret weapon, the Forty-Fives should no longer be one of best rock’s best kept secrets.