The Mutts: Life in Dirt

[25 September 2005]

By Stephen Haag

Toss out the term “British rock” these days, and most minds will leap to oh-so-hip, well-groomed, angular post-punk bands like Bloc Party or the Futureheads. The four guys in the Mutts, who hail from Brighton, England, however, recall an earlier time, when that phrase conjured up images of hirsute rockers playing fuzzed out, heavy blooze numbers and going by names like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

It may not be trendy these days, but the Mutts—singer Chris Murtaugh, guitarist Bryan Shore, bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Adam Watson—are retro enthusiasts. On their sophomore LP, Life in Dirt, the band lives up to its name, as their sound is an amalgamation of countless hard rock bands—British or otherwise—of the past 30-odd years, which can be fun, but the Mutts brought with them too few new ideas to the table.

I’m all for retrorock—somebody’s gotta pick up the torch lit by Sabbath, AC/DC, et al—but the best retrorock bands (like, say, Kings of Leon) honor those who came before them while still pushing the genre forward. The Mutts are a tight unit, the pockets of their tight, unwashed blue jeans overflowing with guitar hooks, and they probably put on a helluva live show, but they’re merely aping their ancestors. And while there’s praise to be handed out to the Mutts for delivering a meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll record (an occurrence that’s rarer than it should be these days), it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the Mutts could’ve done more.

In fairness, the songs on Life in Dirt will rock your socks off. Opener “Excited” is a scruffy, powercharged bluesy workout, full of ‘70s arena rock riffs, and the rumbling “Engines” is either a grimy, poor man’s approximation of Kings of Leon, or the birth of a new genre: rig rock for hipsters (finally, those trucker hats can be put to use!). Most everything else on the album is strutting cock rock: “Blood From a Stone” borrows the groove from “Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo” and “Stranded”, “Let Me See Your Face”, and “Stuck Awake” all rock hard, but all sound about the same, too.

It’s frustrating that too many of the Mutts’ songs blend together, but on the other hand, their biggest sonic detour is also Life in Dirt‘s biggest misstep. I realize it takes all kinds to keep this crazy earth spinning, but who exactly is the audience for the creepy sex colony ode “Incest City”? The tune floats along on an atmospheric (as opposed to sledgehammer-wielding) guitar riff, which already makes it stand out on the disc, and lead singer Murtaugh treats parts of the song as if it were a spoken word piece. But does it really have to be about incest? I’m hoping it’s tongue-in-cheek, cuz if not—ick.

Fortunately, the band redeems itself with album closer “From the Trenches”, which is the heaviest song on the record and is soaked in psychedelic blues rock. Again, it’s not original, but it’s Life in Dirt‘s best song.

Changing gears and wrapping up: I’m not sure how the Mutts ended up on the avant-leaning Fat Cat Records, but it could be a good home for the band. The label is largely home to forward-thinking acts like Animal Collective, Giddy Motors, and Mice Parade. While I’m not suggesting the Mutts would be best served by morphing into a free jazz/Krautrock/Spinal Tap Mach 2 outfit like some of their labelmates, here’s hoping some of those bands’ ideas and senses of adventure rub off on the Mutts. I hate to see great guitar riffs go to waste.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mutts-lifeindirt/