[24 November 2009]
It’s no coincidence that the album cover for each of Heavy Trash’s three records has been a drawing—after all, there’s something more than a little cartoony about the offerings coming from HT’s Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray; to reduce their revved-up, sorta-ironic-but-still-fun as-hell rockabilly/trashrock raves to something as straightforward as a photograph would be to sell the band seriously short. I didn’t think JS and MVR were going to find a more apropos image to accompany their sound than the cover of 2007’s Tony Millionaire-drawn Going Way Out With Heavy Trash, which depicted our bindle-and-guitar-toting heroes chasing a train under a UFO-saturated sky… until I opened Midnight Soul Serenade and saw on the inside cover an ink and paper drawing of two snarling dogs leaping out of a Victrola along with the words “romance” and “worry”—and oh, the devil’s sitting on the record player, strumming a guitar. Game, set, match goes to artist Jean-Luc Navette. If you can picture that, uh, picture, you’ve got a pretty fair idea of what Spencer and Verta-Ray have conjured on Midnight Soul Serenade.
As is the case with nearly all of Spencer’s projects dating back his Pussy Galore days, figuring out what part of the song/album/etc he’s putting in airquotes is half the fun (or maybe just half the “fun”, if you don’t buy his pomo-bluesman shtick). To these ears, though, nobody plays that parlor game quite as well as Spencer does—think Going Way Out‘s “They Were Kings” or the how-sincere-is-he-really? “Crazy Pritty Baby”—but Soul Serenade feels like the least self-conscious of Heavy Trash’s three releases to date.
Whether or not JS and MVR “mean” anything, Soul Serenade still sounds like a helluva good time. Opener “Gee, I Really Love You” threatens to go careening off the rails from the get-go, clambering on MVR’s rickety guitar riffs and guest Mickey Finn’s piano, and a cover of LaVerne Baker’s “Bumble Bee” (also covered by both Billy Fury and the Searchers in the early ‘60s) fits in nicely with the band’s originals—a testament to how well Spencer has internalized the style and approach of early rock ‘n’ roll… plus, you can’t help but smile when Spencer snarls “Shoo-wee / You hurt me like a bee / A bumble bee /an eeevil bumble bee!”. Meanwhile, the two tracks the band cut at London’s legendary Toe Rag Studio, the surf instrumental “Pimento” and the bluesy, swaggering “Bedevilment”, are two of the best things the band has ever done—the latter confident and cheeky enough to compare Snoop Dogg and Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s drug addictions to Spencer’s narrator’s love jones without sounding like a (complete) asshole.
The duo does tweak their established formula, here and there, with varying results. The faux-Waitsian spoken-word acid trip “The Pill” goes nowhere, and takes five minutes to do so (though Spencer’s lysergic realization “‘Click your heels and say there’s no place like home?’ I don’t have that kind of power” is a gem), but I’m happy to report the band’s experiment with moving their internal musical reference calendars up a decade, from 1958 to 1968, works on the filthy, hilarious Nuggets send-up “(Sometimes You Got To Be) Gentle,” an ode to, shall we say, Spencer’s old band, and rife with double entendres like “Help me to grow / Evolution is too slow!” (Ain’t it always?) And the closing one-two punch of “That’s What Your Love Gets You” and “In My Heart” ends the record on a high note.
These guys know rock ‘n’ roll, love rock ‘n’ roll, and hell, who cares if they’re taking the piss? You can’t see airquotes coming through your speakers.