If Paranoid Social Club is any indicator, Portland, Maine, has more soul coursing through its veins than anyone (read: I) could have imagined. Granted, we ain’t talkin’ Motown / Stax here, but on PSC’s new eponymous album, the band—singer / guitarist Dave Gutter, bassist / keyboardist Jon Roods and drummer Marc Boisvert—has a funky time, which is a good thing. Of course, it’s the funky time that appeals mostly to white ballcap-wearing fratboy-types, which is a . . . less good thing.
In their defense, PSC sounds tight on Paranoid Social Club. The band has been together for years—Gutter and Roods both pulled time in Rustic Overtones, a jammish cult band that trod territory similar to PSC and one that seemed on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream before a 2002 breakup. (For what it’s worth, their 1998 debut, Rooms By The Hour is a lost classic in waiting. Go find it.) Additionally, most of the tunes on Paranoid Social Club previously appeared on their two earlier hard-to-find releases: the debut Axis II (sic) and the double-album Axis III and I; really, Paranoid Social Club is the band’s opportunity to welcome newbies (that is to say, anyone not living in Portland, ME) to the Club.
On PSC, the band busts out everything from reggae beats to record scratches to New Wave keyboards, and vocalist Gutter has a great, raspy, instantly recognizable delivery. (I don’t know his competition, but he keeps winning the Portland Phoenix‘s Best Male Vocalist award in its annual Best Music Polls.) And the album is upbeat and loosey-goosey throughout; no anguished ballads here. If you’re looking for something new to throw on at a party and not to have to give a second thought, there are worse discs to spin.
It’s when the album is given a closer listen that its charms fall away, found to cater mainly to the frat crowd. It’s impossible to tell how serious Gutter is when he sings that he wishes he was “gangsta” or if he’s parodying the suburban glorification of that lifestyle on “Gangster”. “Chocolate”, as in “chocolate-covered girlfriend”, as in “chocolate-colored girlfriend”, is intended as harmless, but objectifies black women. “Lunatic” is worth hearing exactly once, as Gutter sings about a guy not handing a breakup well, to put it mildly (“You can’t kiss another if you don’t have a tongue!”—ewwwww), and presumably, the tune’s bouncy xylophone line is meant to be ironic. “Wasted” is about how awesome it is to get shitfaced. Also, can we please place a moratorium on opening a song with the sound of a bong hit, as “She Gets Me High” does? Taken as a whole, the themes and topics covered in the songs above are just idiotic fratboy antics, unfit for consumption by anyone outside that target demo. Hey, somebody’s gotta appeal to the frat crowd, and those guys have money to burn. If that’s all PSC did, then they’d be easy to write off, but they show enough flashes of something better that you’ll wish they didn’t spend so much time pandering to the fratboy crowd.
The calendar says it’s almost autumn, but “Two Girls” is a damn-near-perfect slice of summertime pop; it’s a funky stomp where Gutters admits he’d need two girls—one naughty, one nice—to replace his current amazing girlfriend. It’s clever, sweet and good-natured where, say, the leering “Chocolate” isn’t. Also clever is “Music Man”, where Gutter spurns a “front-row girl” (a.k.a. a groupie), claiming he’s only interested in playing music for her. How often does that happen? And one more question: How did the sincere, midtempo waltz “Rhythm Is” end up next to the inane “Wasted” on the tracklist?
Basically, it comes down to this: I’ll still hold out hope for Paranoid Social Club—after all, this album is more of a get-everyone-up-to-speed disc than an album proper—but they need to realize that not everyone is a “Lunatic” who lives to get “Wasted”.