[18 November 2004]
Mystery surrounds Portland’s I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, and that’s probably the way they like it. Cribbing their name from the autobiography of John L. Sullivan, the last bare-knuckle boxing champion, S.O.B. (as their fans call them) started in 2002 as singer Mike Damron’s near-solo project, releasing Creepy Little Noises, a record that introduced Damron’s wicked rasp to the world. His unique voice was not enough to carry the album, though, and the patchwork assembly of musicians never surpassed blandness, presenting a drab country-rock backdrop to Damron’s welcome weirdness. Consequently, not even he was appealing by the time the disc spun to a stop, being so overburdened by the weight of carrying the whole thing off with just his ravaged throat.
It was good news, then, that Damron found a stable lineup of musicians for his next outing, 2003’s Put Here to Bleed, which revealed not just an improved sound but a devoutly liberal outlook, a boon for the band coming as it did when swarms of twentysomethings were starting to go wild for Howard Dean (and, to a lesser extent, Dennis Kucinich, Dean for the deluded). Now that scads of high-profile rock stars have organized concerts and tours and rallies to pry our president from the White House, Damron finds himself in a crowded field with S.O.B.‘s newest, Menace. Such a title coming from this band, combined with what can be discerned from the cryptic cover—there are a bird’s claws, some bombs in a nest, and a monster wielding a guitar, although the connections among these elements remains mysterious—gives the indication that the leftist sentiment will continue here, and those hankering for such a thing will not be disappointed.
Though the countryness of S.O.B. dictates a heavy dose of personal songwriting, mainly about heartbreak, politics once again grabs the attention. With a tribute to an American peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip (“Rachel Corrie”), an anti-Fred Phelps diatribe (“Westboro Baptist Church”), and a story about two combatants on either side of the Iraqi insurgency (“Dust and Sun”), Menace wears its heart on its left sleeve. With as much as the press tends to cover this side of the group, it’s hard not to feel that it overshadows their other elements if it doesn’t render them superfluous. It’s a shame, since S.O.B. is a solid band that continues to get better at kicking out the greasy jams. Damron deserves a salute for turning what was his weakness at the outset into his current strength.
The flip side of that, of course, is that his vocals and, more importantly, lyrics, have become the least appealing part of S.O.B. The charm of his hoarseness never recoups the losses incurred by a total lack of variety or range, and his cornpone accent sounds exaggerated or fake at key musical and emotional moments, thus undercutting several layers of suspended disbelief at once. Worse, his much-vaunted outspokenness always strikes out at the easiest possible targets. The aforementioned swipe at Baptist preacher Fred Phelps (he of “God hates fags” fame) is easily deserved, but that doesn’t make it especially courageous or insightful to chant “Fuck Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.” Instead, it’s just smarmy, unbearably so, with the voluminous vulgarity of the song adding to this impression rather than making it sound more daring.
“Rachel Corrie” is somewhat more controversial, but by now, an anti-Israeli stance is becoming increasingly conventional among the quasi-radical crowd Damron is courting. “Dust and Sun”, the album closer, trims back the cheap preaching and is musically excellent in its minimal approach, but it neither tells us something we don’t already know nor touches us. It covers both sides but poorly in both cases. Its two characters don’t seem like living, breathing people so much as rhetorical devices contrived to make a point, which is exactly what they are. It’s a fitting if frustrating way to end a record with enough strong components to deserve better than its status as agitprop.