The last time we left The Raveonettes, they had surprised many with their charming Chain Gang of Love, a record imbued with 1950s nostalgia and brimming with plenty of fuzzed-out guitar noise that owed a lot to The Jesus & Mary Chain. Guitar ace Sune Rose Wagner and statuesque bassist/femme fatale Sharin Foo shamelessly mined mid-20th century popular culture, from the rockabilly-tinged tunes to the kitschy movie poster artwork, while providing harmony lead vocals in the same kind of slightly disaffected, yet endearing way that the brothers Reid did on Psychocandy. The Raveonettes gimmick was simple: songs were short, Wagner’s guitars dominated the mix, burying the bass in a whoosh of distortion, the percussion was spare, save for the odd minimal electronic touch, and as the album cover boasted, every song was recorded in B flat major. As fun as Chain Gang was, it was obvious that subsequent album that adhered to such a formula would have a limited shelf life. So, in the same way that Chain Gang was an impressive departure from the rather wooden Whip it On EP, their latest album continues the band’s evolution.
Or is that de-evolution? The more the years go by, it seems, the more The Raveonettes’ own little Wayback Machine seems to drift further and further toward McCarthy-era America. You can almost sense the time travel on their stirring cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”, a live staple, and which appeared on the recent A Touch of Black EP. A gorgeous collision of shoegazer noise and classic pop, Wagners’ ear-splitting waves of guitars match Foo’s faithful recitation of the song stride for stride, but soon, the tender melody wins out, the gentle, lilting notes dominating, as the distorted guitars fade, receding into the background. No, those kind of guitar effects would not be needed where they’re headed. On Pretty in Black, their transition from an alt-rock curiosity to a full-fledged retro act is almost complete. The likes of David Lynch and John Waters might come to mind when hearing The Raveonettes, but on the new record, any sense of Lynch’s sinister irony or Waters’s campiness is cast aside in favor of a sincere homage to a bygone era.
Not only are the songs longer than three minutes and are not all recorded in the same limiting key, but the overall sound is greatly improved. Wagner’s guitars have been turned down, bringing a cleaner, more vintage feel that casts aside all the Jesus & Mary Chain comparisons, epitomized by the fabulous, tightly-wound solos on the wanton “Love in a Trashcan”. Plus, with new bassist Anders Christensen in the fold, they’re a full-fledged band now, giving Foo the chance to give up the bass for good, and handle more lead vocals and rhythm guitar. Veteran producer Richard Gottehrer knows all about creating present-day nods to classic pop, having produced such classic albums as Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ Blank Generation and The Go-Gos’ Beauty and the Beat, and his tasteful production eases up on the gimmicks and lets the music do the work, while managing at the same time to mold the most full-sounding Raveonettes album yet.
Musically, Pretty in Black delves deeper into the late ‘50s/early ‘60s popular culture landscape than the band has done in the past. Wagner’s and Foo’s lead vocals are greatly improved, the pair displaying more emotion and nuance in their singing, perfectly exemplified by Wagner’s Ricky Nelson-esque solo turn on the tender “The Heavens”, and of Foo’s faithful, yet luminous cover of The Angels’ classic “My Boyfriend’s Back” (which producer Gottehrer co-wrote). “Here Comes Mary” and “Seductress of Bums” hearken back to the sugary-sweet crooning of early ‘60s teen idols (Bobby Vinton and Frankie Avalon come to mind), while “Somewhere in Texas” borrows a little bit from “Ring of Fire” era Johnny Cash. Both “Sleepwalking” and “Twilight” are two of the best full band performances on the disc, two very effective stabs at rockabilly, this despite the fact that “Twilight” comes close to being marred by its light disco beat, the only awkward musical touch on the CD.
The majority of tracks pale in comparison to the shimmering “Ode to L.A.” “Come on, let’s go to where it’s fun, I want a slice of L.A. sun,” croons Foo, in her best vocal performance to date, as the song immediately takes off into a startlingly good imitation of Phil Spector’s girl group pop, with its stripped down, insistent beats, Wagner’s crystalline guitar notes, and the ever-reliable sleigh bells, as the song rides a dreamy wave of sumptuous rock ‘n’ roll. Then, when you think it can’t get any better, the great Ronnie Spector makes an appearance midway through, her ageless voice sounding as flawless as ever, and from then on, the song is hers, as she launches into those fabulous “whoa-oh-oh”‘s that she made so famous on The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”.
With Spector, as well as former Velvet Undergound percussionist Maureen Tucker, and Suicide keyboardist Martin Rev contributing cameo appearances, Pretty in Black might brazenly flaunt its devotion to vintage rock ‘n’ roll, but it arrives during a time when trendy, tetchy post punk is starting to dominate, and the album’s no-frills sound proves to be a welcome diversion. By moving in the complete opposite direction of everyone else, Wagner and Foo aren’t really giving us anything new, but with two good albums now under their belts, the duo are proving to be one of the most reliable bands around when it comes to old-fashioned, catchy rock.