Alright, gang, this isn’t going to be one of those reviews for Alive and Amplified, the latest album from New York City garage rockers the Mooney Suzuki, that excoriates the band for selling out by working with the radio-friendly slick production team the Matrix. After all, rumor has it that the band was hoping to work with ELO’s Jeff Lynne for their major-label debut on Columbia (following on the heels of two stellar albums, People Get Ready and Electric Sweat, for Estrus and Gammon, respectively), but a Columbia A&R man pitched them the Matrix instead. The band reluctantly joined forces with the hitmakers, fought tooth and nail over Amplified‘s sound, and claim to be pleased with the end result while also vowing never to work with the Matrix again.
So I, for one, am willing to give the Mooney Suzuki some leeway on Alive and Amplified; they weren’t brass-ring grabbing like recent Matrix devotee Liz Phair was when she hooked up with the trio for her self-titled pop makeover last year. Rather, Alive and Amplified sounds like the band was willing to experiment and work with the producers they had been given (it’s amazing what you’ll agree to when you’re under contract with Columbia); it’s just that the adventure down the Matrix’s musical path turns out to be a dead end.
Yes, garage purists, the Matrix are partly to blame for some of the problems that plague the album. The band—guitarist/singer Sammy James, Jr., guitarist Graham Tyler, drummer Augie Wilson and bassist Michael Miles—oozed genuine soul on the greasy, grimy Electric Sweat. Under the Matrix’s eye, that soul has been turned into a caricature—soul to them seems to mean clean-sounding guitars and female back-up singers (see the title track and “Loose ‘n’ Juicy”). They also sprinkle the album with unnecessary whirs and clicks (“Legal High”) and faux radio static. The band and the Matrix call their approach to record-making “Maximalism”, but it sounds for all the world like pointless studio fuckery. The Mooney Suzuki proved they were a fully-realized band with Electric Sweat; they don’t need distracting bells and whistles.
It takes two to tango, though, and the Mooneys are guilty of bringing songs to the album that aren’t so much dumb (though they’re that too) as they are lazy. Opener “Primitive Condition” notes we’re “Just fancy animals with hands / And animal glands” (I never thought I’d say this, but the Bloodhound Gang did it better with “Bad Touch”). “Hot Sugar” finds James praising a woman who’s “As sweet as a honey bee / Get your honey runnin’ easily”. I realize that garage rock isn’t the most soul-searching and lyrically-intensive of genres (the Dictators summed up the scene back in ‘74, when Dick Manitoba realized “There’s nothing in this crazy world / Except for cars and girls”), but an astute listener could guess every lyrics before it passes James’s lips.
Most egregious, and most representative of the band’s laziness, is that they saw fit to include three songs about having sex with groupies: “Legal High”, “Messin’ in the Dressin’ Room” and a hidden track that urges friendly ladies to “Come on the Love Bus”. Ewww—the track should have stayed hidden. What’s distressing about these songs is that they’re the sound of a band out of touch with its fans; I like girls, but I can’t relate to the finer points of shagging groupies. When a band starts to sings about the trappings of the rock star lifestyle, it’s run out of worthwhile things to say.
Fortunately, there are a few moments where James and co. are relatable. Sure, the title track gets a full Matrix workout, but at least it’s about rock and roll; “Sometimes Somethin’” sounds like Southern Harmony-era Black Crowes and proves the Mooneys’ souls are misplaced and not completely destroyed; and the jangly “New York Girls” is far and away the album’s best track. It’s everything the rest of the album isn’t: poppy, but not Teflon-slick; friendly, but not leering. An album of tunes along the lines of “New York Girls” would not have garnered the band such scathing reviews.
Alive and Amplified is not an unlistenable disaster, but it pales in comparison to the masterful Electric Sweat. Fans may consider it a pyrrhic victory that James promises never to record with the Matrix again, but a) fans are still stuck with Alive and Amplified; and b) no producer, from the Matrix to Jeff Lynne to Jim Diamond, could have made palatable the half-baked songs the band brought with them to the recording studio. It takes two to tango, indeed.