Don't Fence Us In
Despite the attention that’s been refocused on the Motor City since the ascendancy of the White Stripes as critical and popular darlings, many of the various indie bands laboring in Detroit are insistent that there’s not a monolithic “garage rock scene” in their fair city. They don’t want to be the White Stripes’ younger siblings, and they don’t want Detroit to become Seattle II.
However, this insistence hasn’t prevented labels from far a field to head north to start the courting process. The big winner seems to have been L.A.-based Fall of Rome Records, which has managed to sign two of the best bands in the scene, the Witches and the Sights. This relationship seems both humorous and convoluted once you realize that line-up changes have made things a little incestuous. Among the series of drummers that have maintained brief tenures in the Sights since their formation in 1998, the drummer prior to the recording of Got What We Want, Eugene Strobe, has since been replaced by Dave Shettler, but Strobe has recently hooked up with the Witches. Meanwhile, bassist Matt Hatch has recently been found playing with the Sights, following his stint with the Witches. Crazy ol’ rock and roll.
Various love-ins within the Detroit rock scene aside, the Sights have emerged as one of the best things to come out of the city in a long while (White Stripes fans, no angry emails please). Got What We Want was recently spotted on the New Musical Express Top 50 of 2002 list, and would definitely have been a contender for my own top 10 if this album had drawn my attention sooner. The reason for all the praise is obvious on the first listen. In the space of one album, the Sights seem to capture all the potential for rough around the edges, garage rock sounds without ever losing sight (ha ha) of the power of pop.
The group’s first effort, 1999’s Are You Green?, was a much more traditional power-pop affair, and on Got What We Want the Sights have muddied things up a bit more, dabbling in some blues and some classic rock, but the pop sensibility is still at the heart of things. This is evident right away thanks to the disc’s first track, “Don’t Want You Back”. The initial rumbling bass and twangy guitar riffs are quickly undercut by sweet melodies and a lighthearted organ and sleigh bells combo. While a retro ‘60s guitar sound permeates the song, it doesn’t prevent the track from ending in a syrupy psychedelic swirl. While the same blending continues on “Be Like Normal”, by the third track the album has begun to change its attack, moving from tone to tone and style to style, although never completely sacrificing consistency for variety.
“Sorry Revisited” has every bit of the grandiose, anthemic ‘70s stadium rock sound that Oasis mimics to such success. Here it takes on the spacey effect of a Spiritualized track, amplified by the distant echo placed on Eddie Baranek’s vocals, but it remains a song that you can just tell would be a lighter-waving live number. Skip straight from there to “It’d Be Nice (To Have You Around)”, a Beatles pop retro number that evokes the British Invasion effortlessly. Jump from there to “One and Only”, which kicks up the tempo and the guitars into a glam rock frenzy. The piano track and rolling pop melody of “Everyone’s a Poet” produces a song that sounds like an intersection between Ben Folds and Jellyfish, to great pure pop effect. The variety of interests among the various members of the Sights, particularly Mark Leahy’s love of classic rock, give the Sights a broader palette than your standard indie rock, garage-come-lately band.
But the band’s Detroit pedigree is certainly going to draw more attention to the bluesy tracks on the disc, something that Sights founder and bandleader Baranek says is his own particular love. And it is the influence of Memphis blues that gives the Sights something truly in common with their more famous neighbors. “Last Chance” is the first time that the blues element truly surfaces, although here it’s subsumed in a dirty rock that evokes the truly classic Detroit sound of the MC5. However, both “Sick and Tired” and “Nobody” are true blues-rock numbers, thick with heavy blues guitar chords and roadhouse rough edges. Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones would have been proud of their obvious legacy in both Baranek’s guitar work and impassioned vocals. “Nobody” in particular (ha! again) shows that Baranek has been listening to his blues masters records. In many ways, this is more in line with the Detroit tradition than many of the bands that have been associated with it.
However, the Sights are a band that shouldn’t be so quickly pigeon-holed. They’ve got the blues chops, despite being impressively young in their very early 20s, but they’ve also got a much wider scope and appreciation of the past. In some ways, the melding of blues traditions, power pop conventions, and a healthy appreciation of the past makes them a true rock and roll band. And before you start talking about scenes, or garage, or Detroit, it really just comes down to that. The Sights are a rock and roll band, and a very talented one. Got What We Want is a truly worthwhile purchase, and if it’s any indication of things to come, you’ll be hearing a lot more about the Sights.