How disheartening it must be for new bands to constantly be told they sound like someone else. Many no doubt deserve the associations, but they don’t all opt simply to remake the old stuff, do they? Sure, Paul Banks of Interpol sounds a bit like Ian Curtis of Joy Division (whether or not this was his intention has been a source of inane debate), but regardless of whatever influences they betray, Interpol has made excellent music in its own right, creating and laying claim to a new sound that is unmistakably theirs—and now newer bands are being told they sound like Interpol, so the natural progression of these things is even more immediately observable. Quick flashback: Mick Jagger blatantly tried to sound just like Muddy Waters and everybody loved it. The result, of course, was not a replica but merely Mick Jagger doing a girly-man pseudo-blues which engendered a whole new thing altogether, paving the way for countless other blues-based rock bands. Musical styles are not museum pieces intended to gather dust on a shelf—especially not rock and roll styles that are all bastardizations (sometimes inspired, sometimes horrendous) of one thing or another anyway. Where would rock music be without all the pilfering, copying and stealing? Well, it wouldn’t be at all. So the grief critics love dumping on bands who even remotely sound like someone else is more often than not unwarranted; the result of a lack in imaginative ways to contextualize a given sound or image. The critic’s laziness is less likely to show when he skirts the easy comparisons by going directly at the music itself with whatever gusto fits the bill, be it praise or condemnation.
But the total exclusion of comparisons can also prove problematic, particularly for those readers who are not pop music connoisseurs and who simply want to know whether or not they should buy the album (I thank my editor for planting this obvious yet elusive notion in my lazy critic’s brain). In this case the comparison is not only beneficial to the layperson (for lack of a better word) but also to the artist. What could Julie from Peoria, Illinois possibly think of music that “glistens with a gravelly urgency?” What the hell does that mean to Julie? It means she won’t know what she’s getting into and will opt instead for the discounted copy of Golden Earring’s Greatest Hits. If she reads that the Thrills incorporate elements of the Beach Boys, the Stones, Neil Young, the Byrds and the Band into their music, perhaps at least one of the references will spark an interest and she’ll be more inclined to take a chance on it. Through her, different demographics will be exposed to new kinds of music which will in turn open up a whole new audience to the band; and so begins the chain-reaction of proliferation. Isn’t reaching a wide audience one of the points of making music? Forgive my dewy-eyed idealism but I still believe in the potential redemptive power this medium holds in its fumbling grasp. The more esoteric the references, the less accessible the music becomes, and then these bands are just playing for each other, or those hip enough to be in the know. An image of a dog chasing his own tail comes to mind—the dog of course sporting a New Wave hairdo, vintage T-shirt, and faded black Chuck Taylors.
So why are these issues worth mentioning in a review about a Thrills show? Well, aside from sheepishly trying to immunize myself against criticism, the confluence of circumstances surrounding the Thrills’ first show of the evening at the Bottom Line was impressive: a live radio broadcast on WFUV-FM, the Fordham University station (arguably the best in the city), a packed house at one of New York’s most legendary venues where the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis and Neil Young have all performed to small audiences, and Rita Houston, one of the station’s deejays and emcee for the show, proclaiming that this would be a night we would all be telling our kids about—although I can’t help but feel that by saying this, the actual importance of the moment might somehow have been diminished. Much faith has been placed in these four blokes from Dublin given that they are relative unknowns who have, among other potential drawbacks, a band name beginning with that pervasively insidious article “the” and whose influences are plastered all over the place. These were not the Beatles appearing for the first time on Ed Sullivan to change the course of popular music, so what dear Lord is all the hype?
There is a pocket in recent American history, now the stuff of legend, folded into the hills of northern California and spread out on its beaches to the south, where musicians would pile out of Volkswagen buses and gather on street corners or in the fabled house of so-and-so to give the cultural revolution a soundtrack, where drugs flowed freely but served an important subversive and creative purpose, where the unity of man was promoted and where living the good life under the California sunshine was at once a viable utopia and a dream destined to pale in the face of impossible expectations. This is the lore that so attracts the Thrills and for some reason, the gray landscape of their native Ireland was fertile soil for such a hankering. They spent four months in San Diego writing their debut album So Much for the City, assembling components of the very specific slice of Americana that was the Golden State in its mythological heyday better than any album in recent memory.
They began their set with “Old Friends, New Lovers”, which they dedicated to Elliot Smith, who had taken his own life a few days earlier. The string arrangements that open the song on the album were absent and only Conor Deasy’s appropriately longing voice sings “it’s such a shame when old friends fall out.” A particularly poignant guitar solo by Daniel Ryan is given a more sober treatment, as is the rest of the song—this being the only moment their live version of a song was softer than the recording. With each song performed, the band revealed a raggedness completely absent from the studio cuts. It was as if they’d taken the album and plopped it down in a bad neighborhood, left it to fend for itself and had the sweetness scared out of it. The overwhelmed kid in “Your Love is Like Las Vegas” turns into a veteran of the scene who knows exactly what he means when he says “Las Vegas I can only afford one hand.” The songs take on a bawdier tone when witnessed live—although not entirely; these songs are undeniably sunny and no amount of Jack Daniels-soaked, Keith Richards raunch could completely erase that. But this really was a different band than the one on the record. No longer were they the lads whose lush country orchestrations had lulled me into a peaceful easy feeling. Suddenly these boyish beach bums were full-fledged rock stars. Deasy amping his breathy whisper up into loud yells while retaining his trademark rasp. His vocal style doesn’t immediately recall anyone else’s, which keeps the songs from having that recycled rock feeling. Although his loud “THANK YOU!” spurts at the end of each song are certainly something he learned from his idols.
In “Big Sur”, Deasy, with his bandmates doing a Beach Boys “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” in the background, begs his girlfriend not to return to Big Sur (famed retreat for a surplus of hippie royalty including Crosby, Stills & Nash). A spacey intro gives way to the trot of a banjo which, together with the ensemble singing, recalls the earnestness of the Partridge Family but without all the saccharine—it’s certainly in keeping with their persistent referencing of American cities and their patent obsession with everything West Coast, U.S.A. They’ve certainly done their homework. When they debuted a new tune called “What Ever Happened to Corey Haim?”, a clear departure from their ‘60s and ‘70s themes, they apologized for not realizing everyone in this country actually knows the answer to that question. But as far as I know, their song about the former teen star will continue to be relevant for some time to come. Do we know what happened to him? The Thrills can rest assured that we are just as confused as they are.
Beneath it all there is a real innocence to their delivery that these days seems absent from much substantive music. Doom and gloom dominate, no doubt as a necessary reflection of the somber nature of the times; ironically this catharsis can have the tendency to engender cynical views of the world, for better or worse. But the Thrills seem to take it all in stride, casting life in a positive light. Perhaps their sparkly outlook is unrealistic, and their adherence to seemingly dead ideals anachronistic, but dark times need bright respites and maybe the Thrills are just the visionaries we’ve all been waiting for to deliver us from the muck and mire. And even if you catch a glimpse of Bob Dylan’s harmonica or Garth Hudson’s organ stretched out over Brian Wilson’s sonic excursions, the Thrills’ take on it all is at once refreshing and well-timed. Whether or not this was a night everyone will be recounting to heir children remains to be seen, but I will certainly remember it as a flash of color and optimism in my otherwise world-weary existence.