[6 October 2009]
It’s hard to talk about the Almighty Defenders—a group consisting of Mark Sultan (aka BBQ Show), King Khan, and members of the Black Lips—without mentioning the word “supergroup.” It’s a bit funny to think that a handful of artists who individually (and, now, we can guess, together) couldn’t sell out DC’s Black Cat or New York’s Bowery Ballroom deserve to be called much more than “a bunch of similarly-minded musicians working together”, but to our constantly-obsessing indie culture, this pairing is the stuff of dreams.
Indeed, the specter of “supergroup” hangs all over this album, not just in how it fails to meet the expectations that such a term implies, but in how the album itself is constructed. The troubles that plague supergroups are well-documented, whether we’re talking about the in-fighting of a band like Zwan, the no-toes-stepped-upon mediocrity of Tinted Windows, or the ‘let’s take turns writing songs’ stew of Swan Lake. Thankfully, due in no small part to the Almighty Defenders’ constituency of some of the most fun artists in indie rock right now, none of these problems manifest here. This isn’t a bunch of high-strung, self-centered Yngwie Malmsteen wannabees trying to write a piece of musical perfection. It’s just a bunch of guys who like old school garage rock rippin’ the bowl and seeing where it takes them.
So, why, then, does the phrase seem so pertinent? Perhaps because of just how composite the album feels, an “a+b” of the easiest measure. When I think Black Lips, I think shambolic, slightly psychedelic, skuzzy garage punk. When I think Mark Sultan, I think shambolic, repetitive, slightly psychedelic blues rock. When I think King Khan, I think strong vocal presence on top of slightly less shambolic blues rock. So, then, how would I quickly describe the Almighty Defenders? Shambolic, slightly psychedelic, repetitively rhythmic blues-punk. No, not exactly an All Music Guide genre tagline, but far more concise (and obvious) than I could be when attempting to describe, say, that new HEALTH record.
Let’s take a look at perhaps the album’s best offering (and lead single) “Bow Down and Die”. The song ambles along for four minutes on the same loping guitar line, something pulled from a slowed down Black Lips b-side. Meanwhile, King Khan yells on top of it, high in the mix (and clipping obnoxiously at times), accompanied by the rest of group for the chorus, making for a rollicking singalong of the best measure. And there, in a nutshell, is the contribution each part of the group has to every song on the album. “The Ghost with the Most”? A loping group singalong with endearingly shoddy production. “All My Loving”? Oh, a repetitive shoutalong recorded in a 1960s garage.
This isn’t necessarily an awful thing: if you like each of the contributors (and chances are you like them all if you like one of them) you’re finally getting to hear that collaborative wet dream of 1960s psych-punk revivalists. But I can’t honestly recommend a song on the Almighty Defenders before other songs that each of its constituents have done individually. Both “Cone of Light” and “Bow Down and Die” are fun in the exact way you’d expect, but they can’t touch “Welfare Bread” or “Katrina”, let alone “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way” or “Bad Kids”. Still, if you love those songs, there’s no doubt you’ll find something to like on the Almighty Defenders.