Ears Wide Open
Had enough of sloppy, howling garage rock, yet? Sick of seeing Jack White or one of his protégés (of sorts) plastered on the cover of every slick rock magazine being hawked at the local grocery store? Wondering how it is, exactly, that each two-bit band hailing from Detroit or some Slavic country is going to save rock-n-roll?
You’re not alone. Trust me. You are definitely not alone.
That doesn’t, of course, mean they (and there are a lot of them) are going away anytime soon. For the rest of you—all of you who have been not so patiently stamping your foot, waiting for garage rock’s great comeback—it’s a freakin’ renaissance. Enjoy it while you can.
It started, I guess, with the White Stripes. Maybe it was sooner, but was anyone really paying attention before Jack and Meg? Shortly after the Lego video broke on MTV, again depending on who’s keeping score, newly found saviors started coming out of the woodwork. There are: Mooney Suzuki, the Detroit Cobras, the Hives, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Vines. . . .
And the Von Bondies. A Jack White pet project, 2001’s Lack of Communication capitalized nicely on the candy stripped buzz and included a remarkably fun and crisp hit, “Cryin’”. They were a little more infectious than most of their dank, club-dwelling brethren, and guitarist/singer Jason Stollsteimer has a presence—both on stage and record—that is undeniable.
On Raw and Rare, however, the Bondies are exposed for what they are: bland impersonators of some forgotten grand heyday of rock that never really existed.
The 15-track disc was culled mostly from two live BBC sessions recorded in 2001 and 2002, on the heels of Communication. It’s a sampler to keep the faithful hungry in anticipation of the upcoming proper follow-up,Pawn Shoppe Heart. For those who believe in the capacity of an average band with average songs from a below average, cigarette-butt of a Midwestern town, Raw will likely do just that. For the rest of us, it’s validation that nobody has ever saved or killed rock-n-roll, and that we should stop perpetrating that particular (and ridiculous) argument and actually listen to the damn music. Because with your ears wide open, you’ll find nothing raw or rare about the Von Bondies.
From the opening drum roll and droning guitar on “Lack of Communication”, it’s clear that the Bondies are approximating something. What that is, though, is anyone’s guess. There’s a bit of Delta blues, some Kinks-like garage work, and plenty of 1970s-brand, New York rock scene posing going on, but when all of these things are jammed onto the same palette, the result is a stomach-turning stew of the banal.
On record, the Von Bondies are full of a half-crazed energy that makes even their imitations sound immediate. They beg for your attention. Oddly enough, though, that energy doesn’t seem to carry over to the stage. They’re still a pretty tight unit for a supposed garage band, but the sound is muddled. There’s no direction here. As a listener, you’re never really sure where the focal point is. Is it the fuzzed out guitar? The pounding rhythm? Stollsteimer’s growl? Stollsteimer himself is often the one getting in the way. His Jim Morrison fetish grows tiresome quickly on tracks like “Lack of Communication” and “Nite Train”. Somewhere, one imagines a school in Detroit that’s churning out factory model Morrisons, and they all look and sound like our pal Jason.
The track selection is fairly predictable here, too. “Cryin’” is represented twice, though neither version is as nearly as fun and ballsy as the studio one. “It Came From Japan”, another of the Bondies’ “hits”, is represented, as are the obligatory covers of the band’s “forefathers”—a standard in the set of any good nostalgia rocker. For the Von Bondies, that means the Sarrow’s “Take a Heart” and the Compulsive Gamblers’ “Rock & Roll Nurse”. Drummer Don Blum takes over the vocals for “Nurse”, but plods along in the same Morrison-esque fashion as Stollsteimer. Yet both “Nurse” and “Take a Heart” are the most focused and tight tracks on the disc.
Like a lot of the garage rock set, the Von Bondies fancy themselves as throwbacks. Or so it seems. They don’t do anything particularly new or daring, the guitar work is predictable and the vocals are painfully plain. And that could work out just fine if they knew what exactly they were throwing back to. Jack White is a student of the Delta blues heritage. But it’s easy to combine blues and garage rock. The White Stripes, though, do it with heart and soul and the spirit of a child. Jack and Meg understand, and have an innate feel for, the realm they are both emerging from and recalling. It’s what makes the music vital and authentic. Too bad Stollsteimer and crew didn’t pick up on that while recording the aptly titled Lack of Communication. It’s one thing to have no clear vision for the future. It’s quite another to not even have sight of the past.