In an age when every musical genre seems to have been resurrected and plundered, it remains only for those periods in between to be mined for inspiration. Laying claim to that short but surprisingly fertile period nestled between bell-bottoms and parachute pants, between feathered, parted-down-the-middle hair and spiky mullets, between aviator glasses and wraparound shades, is Red Planet.
Buzzing guitars and whiney vocals kick off the album with “Get Back at You” and you might want to check the paper to see if George W. Bush is currently bombing Afghanistan or just getting arrested for drunk driving again. The track could be from a lost Buzzcocks album—if the Buzzcocks were straight and from California. By the second track, we are pleasantly reminded that Red Planet’s chosen frame of reference also, importantly, encompasses a time when Moogs sat proudly alongside Les Pauls and before schoolyard debates considered the merits of “real” instruments. On “Continental Divide”, the band manages to pair dual guitar solos with an analog synth melody and in the process approximate the Cars (with only slightly better haircuts).
The songwriting team of Chris Dunn and Jeremy Powers rarely strays from the tried and true lyrical themes of getting some, getting wasted, and getting even. It’s about time someone wrote the perfect soundtrack to my junior high school years even if it did come over 15 years late and was an embellished (okay, fictional) account. But it’s all there, the wanton drinking (“Let’s Degenerate”), reckless behavior (“Law of Tonnage”), questionable substances (“Heavy Sedation”) and, uh, more drinking (“Wasted Teens”). At least their relationships with the opposite sex are straight from my early adolescence—dejected (“You Knock Me Out”), vengeful (“Get Back at You”), and destructive (“Orbit”).
It’s refreshing to see a band unhindered by politically correct values (without explicitly ridiculing them) but, if people were inclined to listen closely, it would be inevitable that at least a few wouldn’t get the joke. (“This bottle could / make me feel so good / such a great escape / let’s degenerate”—the omission of a lyric sheet was probably a good idea.) They occupy much the same territory as fellow San Franciscans The Donnas; however, a difference in gender and what seems to be at least ten years in age can change things significantly. When the Donnas sang about wasted teens the subject matter was close at hand, whereas Red Planet’s “Wasted Teens” undoubtedly involved a little reminiscing. “I wanna French kiss you” from an underage girl is not without its appeal while “I’m horny and drunk and I wanna screw” from a man on the wrong side of 30 comes dangerously close to downright creepy. And if Nabokov were 60 years younger and from the suburbs he might have written “C’mon Little Girl” (“You keep me up with your Bohemian class / Shake it up baby your sweet ass”).
Produced by Fastback and Young Fresh Fellow Kurt Bloch (no stranger to stupid fun himself), the songs have been variously polished up or stripped down. The impression created is one of making the most out of a limited amount of resources. Whereas many garage bands produce records that sound consistent to a fault, Let’s Degenerate never falls into a sonic rut. The band does run the risk at times, however, of paying too much tribute to its inspirations and losing its own sound in the process. The T. Rex homage “Can’t Wait” is one of the album’s weakest points and the guitar intro of “(Let’s Go) All the Way” just brings to my mind (hopefully unintentionally) .38 Special. The straight-ahead rock of the majority of the disc is wisely balanced out by “Orbit” with its After School Special synth intro and “Heavy Sedation” in which synth and acoustic guitar conjure a poor man’s Pink Floyd tripping on Robitussin rather than acid. Now if they can just dig themselves out of their vinyl collections and continue to forge their own sound, they hopefully won’t end up a footnote in The Complete Unabridged Thoroughly Exhaustive History of Rock under “Power Pop: Late ‘70s/Early ‘80s”.