Detroit, the city that has brought us everything from Stevie Wonder to Alice Cooper to the White Stripes, is also home to The Paybacks, a four-piece outfit formed in 1999. The group released their third album, Love, Not Reason this past November on Savage Jams, their own label.
For fans of straight-up, ass-kicking rock, Love, Not Reason is a truly great spin. Each track is full of high energy jams concerning love and loss. Wendy Case’s lead vocals (at an impressive 42 years of age) explode with a relentless fervor through her impassioned lyrics. In a world of indie-rock, post-rock, electro-rock, folk-rock, alt-rock, punk-rock, and various other hyphenated genres, it is somewhat refreshing to stumble across an album so unapologetically packed with straightforward, balls-to-the-wall rock & roll, built on traditional structure, springing from archetypal feelings of love . . . and lack thereof. The song form more or less remains the same from song to song, and rarely does a musical idea surprise the listener; the emotions are predictable and the guitar lines are all built off of riffs that we’ve heard many times before throughout rock’s history. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At times it is a great compliment.
Often, however, the predictability of chord progressions or drum kicks becomes tedious. Many of the elements seem almost canned, like some neat lick found in an Advanced Guitar book. A few numbers provide a break in the monotony, like the wandering six-minute “Painkiller”; it is a track of effectively drastic switches between midtempo bluesy vamp and expansive arena-esque rock, building to an impressively tense finale. The final bit, “Sleepwalking”, somehow heightens itself above the other tracks through tight melodic phrases and unexpected energy and intensity from all four musicians.
Some of the greatest, most influential rock ever played has been constructed using three chords and something to bitch about. Really, those are the only requirements for a good rock song, and to ask anything more of rock is akin to asking rap to drop the vulgarity or country to lose the twang. That said, there is a difference between good rock and great rock, and the line is often times quite clear. When one thinks of fresh, innovative rock and roll, no matter the generation, certain bands—the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead—all come to mind. Bands that took three powerchords and something to bitch about and transformed them, corrupted them, and morphed them into music bold and powerful and gut-wrenchingly beautiful. The Paybacks, with Love, Not Reason bring all the parts of good rock together: wailing guitar solos, catchy choruses, pounding drums, and heartbroken vocals. And they do it very well, which makes it all the more difficult to ask what one must: who cares?
Fifty years ago, Elvis could get away with simply three chords and something to bitch about—he sang about the 1950’s, an era known for simplicity. Unfortunately, in a decade of ridiculously advanced technology, terribly complex politics, and an ever-increasing web of global connection, a set of eleven simple songs simply cannot be given too much leeway. As listeners, we want to hear something that reflects our time, or at least reflects another time in a different way. The problem with good rock that reminds us of the past is that it calls forth the question, why not just listen to the music of the past? What purpose does this music ultimately serve?
In all reason, the Paybacks have brought nothing new to the table creatively or artistically. However, it is ridiculous to require that music always serve some ultimate purpose. As the album’s press release notes, Thomas Mann once said, “It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death”. My brain wants to reprimand The Paybacks for making music that has already been made before. But love does conquer reason, and my heart ultimately condones Love, Not Reason as an album of blistering rock and roll. It succeeds on that level. I suppose I can compromise by admitting that sometimes that level—pure, simple rock—can be enough.