The Raveonettes’ debut EP Whip it On was a decent little release from late 2002, a blatantly obvious Jesus and Mary Chain rip-off that just barely managed to hold listeners’ attentions for its 20-minute duration. The Danish duet of guitarist Sune Rose Wagner and bassist Sharin Foo served up music that sounded tantalizing at first, “Attack of the Ghost Riders” being the best example, but as each song rolled by, as mildly pleasant as they were, the gimmick of distorted guitars and the lazy, detached vocal harmonies by Wagner and Foo got tiresome by the time the CD ended. With that first release, The Raveonettes made it clear that they emphasize style over substance, from the very cool, B-movie inspired cover artwork, to Wagner’s brooding visage and Foo’s femme fatale looks, to the film noir kitsch of their videos, to the cute proclamation that the EP was “recorded in glorious B-flat minor”, to the tattoo of Jack Kerouac on Wagner’s right arm. It all looked superhip, but would their audience have reason enough to care once their debut full-length came out?
If Whip it On was a sly nod to American popular culture circa the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, then their new album Chain Gang of Love completely embraces it. The music is just as shallow as the previous record, but instead of taking that been-there-done-that distorted guitar sound into the same dark territory as the first EP did, this time around, The Raveonettes have decided to step out into the daylight. If fellow Jesus and Mary Chain disciples Black Rebel Motorcycle Club make one think of the Velvet Underground, The Wild One, and wraparound shades, then conversely, The Raveonettes evoke thoughts of The Ronettes, Wayfarers, and Pinky Tuscadero.
Yeah, the same loud guitars are as prevalent as they were before, but the real surprise with Chain Gang of Love is the duo’s focus on melodies. Produced by Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, The Go-Go’s), combines the slick production of ‘80s new wave with Phil Spector’s densely layered wall of sound. Gone are those boring harmonies that wore thin on Whip it On; this time around, Wagner and Foo engage in some sweet, undeniably catchy pop hooks, diving headlong into early ‘60s bubblegum music, offering an oddly endearing boy-girl give and take. That Jesus and Mary Chain vibe is still there, but this time around, the focus is almost exclusively on just how catchy Wagner and Foo can make each song, and the result is surprisingly effective.
It hits you over the head immediately on “Remember”, a winsome love song so wide-eyed, you’d think Alex Chilton wrote it, ending in swirls of airy harmony vocals by Foo. “Noisy Summer” boasts hints of doo wop, while “The Love Gang” goes so overboard in its combination of dissonant guitar noise and gentle, romantic melodies, that it would have been a perfect fit on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. As each song rolls by, you think you’ve heard each melody, each guitar lick before, and you probably have, but when you hear Sune and Sharin sing, “Let’s rave on, cause you know that you want it / Let’s make out, cause you know that you want it,” you can’t help but give in. You’re awash in retro sounds: rockabilly guitar, surf guitar, heartbreaking ballads (“Love Can Destroy Everything”), Buddy Holly style energy (“Heartbreak Stroll”), and even that cheesy chain gang rhythm on the title track.
It all works well, but everything comes together perfectly on “That Great Love Sound”, a brilliant piece of college rock bubblegum that just might be the song that actually gets indie kids dancing. However, the real defining moment on Chain Gang of Love can be heard in “Little Animal”. In the song, Wagner sings about a girl who won’t leave him alone: “My girl is a little animal / She always wants to fuck / Can’t find a reason why / I guess it’s just my luck.” Then, a minute later, the song goes into a middle eight section, with Sharin’s bass playing the melody from Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him”, as Sune’s guitar frantically squeals and wails. It’s like Sune is scrambling to get the hell out of there, but Sharin, playing the relentless stalker, is calmly going, “I love him, I love him, I love him, and where he goes I’ll follow. . . .” It’s as brilliant a combination of modern rock noise and pure bubblegum as you’ll ever hear.
You can easily find lots of albums from 2003 that are better, but very few of them will exude as much goofy charm as this one does. Chain Gang of Love completely derivative and unoriginal, but who cares? This album is all about having fun, and sometimes, that’s all you need.