The subgenre of two-piece blues/garage acts has its female participants—Meg White of the White Stripes and the Kills’ VV spring to mind—but they’ve got nothing on Mr. Airplane Man‘s Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus. Who coulda guessed that two girls could loose the oft-restrictive (and reductive) shackles of the genre and kick a little ass in the process? Granted, it took three tries (2001’s Red Lite and 2002’s Moanin’), but on their latest, C’mon DJ, Garrett and McManus inject the right amount of girl group sass and garage snarl to transcend the limitations imposed by guitar and drum kit.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to know the right people. The list of the people who have worked with Mr. Airplane Man reads like a who’s who of the current garage scene: the White Stripes, the Strokes, legendary Detroit producer Jim Diamond (the Dirtbombs). And let’s not forget Morphine’s Mark Sandman, who helped the band get off the ground—literally: the girls were busking in Boston when they hooked up with Sandman. Add those influences together and Mr. Airplane Man have an enviable pedigree.
None of that would matter, though, if Garrett and McManus didn’t have chops. Fortunately, C’mon DJ finds the duo operating at the peak of their powers. But first, a little history. For those of you not wholeheartedly steeped in the blues, Mr. Airplane Man take their name from an old Howlin’ Wolf song. While Garrett and McManus take the time to honor their hero on C’mon DJ with a primordial version of Wolf’s “Asked for Water” (”...but he gave me kerosene”, goes the line, proving once again that bluesmen just cannot catch a break), it’s telling, if not a tad sacrilegious, that the tune is the least interesting song on the record. Let’s just say it’s a good thing our gals expanded their sonic palette.
Much more thrilling are tunes like the opening title track, a slice of greasy, lo-fi skronk where Garrett’s guitar and voice both sound to be on the brink of orgasm (yes, guitars can have orgasms). Or “Make You Mine”, which oozes sex and is probably the soundtrack to Underground Garage radio show host “Little Steven” Van Zandt’s dirty dreams.
But it’s not all sex; more often than not it’s about longing, a staple of “girl garage”. Admittedly, Garrett and McManus’ take on girl group rock is a little more modern than the beehive hairdos and floral dresses the term connotes; “Don’t Know Why” owes its existence to reigning garage queen Holly Golightly (herself a “girl group” member from her days in Billy Childish’s Thee Headcoatees). And I’ll be damned if the stomp of “Wait For Your Love” and the ethereal county-music juke box lament of “How Long” aren’t shaded by PJ Harvey and Whip-smart-era Liz Phair, respectively. These songs are plenty raucous, to be sure, but at their heart, they’re ballads. It’s an odd juxtaposition at the heart of these liberated women who can summon the devil’s blues with deftness and ease, and also sing about getting hung up on a guy. I’m no gender studies expert, but something doesn’t add up. My unsolicited opinion? Homage to those women in garage who came before them. On songs like “How Long” and “Don’t Know Why”, Garrett seems to say, “You may have our words/brains, but you’ll never get our music/hearts/guts” before launching into a guitar explosion, with McManus following suit on the skins. (Perhaps it’s faint praise, but let it be said: Tara McManus is a way better drummer than Meg White). Hell, if you’re not up for subtext, the songs rock and they constitute an enjoyable bulk of C’mon DJ.
That said, the back half of the album is weighted down by a few too many covers, as if the band members hadn’t quite convinced themselves with the album’s strong first half that they were free to move beyond blues noodling. In addition to the aforementioned “Asked for Water”, C’mon DJ features an OK cover of the Wailers’ “Hang Up”; a take on the Outsiders’ “Sun Going Down”, where Garrett challenges My Morning Jacket’s Jim James for Most Reverb-Soaked Vocals; and the traditional tune “Travelin’”. There’s nothing flat-out wrong with any of these songs, but it’s the latter tune where Garrett and McManus’ genuine appreciation of the blues shines through. They screw around with the form just enough to make it their own, but it’s obvious the real essence of the blues is encoded in their DNA.
To invoke an equally obscure two-piece blues/garage band, Mr. Airplane Man are the distaff equivalent of the Immortal Lee County Killers (check the archive). They love the blues, build on the blues, tune their guitars way down low, and can raise an unholy racket, but they also contribute to and expand the genre.