[5 January 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
After first hearing their debut album, it’s easy to compare New York’s Morningwood to Williamsburg’s resident hipsters Yeah Yeah Yeahs. After all, they’re led by the flamboyant, curvaceous Chantal Claret, who commands audiences’ attentions both on record and onstage much like the seemingly inimitable Karen O, and both bands’ music draws heavily from ‘80s new wave and classic garage rock, but while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs benefit greatly from the guitar stylings of the supremely talented Nick Zinner, Morningwood take a more straightforward, not to mention more upbeat, approach. Some cynics might slam the band’s lack of originality and declare that their straight-ahead, simple, sexually charged rock ‘n’ roll just doesn’t cut it these days, but in reality they’re missing out on what turns out to be a rather enjoyable, saucy little record that balances visceral guitar rock and indie pop adequately, despite the songwriting limitations of the band.
Granted, this stuff is far from cutting edge, but the album, produced by Gil Norton (he of Pixies and Echo and the Bunnymen fame), has enough polish to make even the duller moments glint just a bit. “Nu Rock” does the Scandinavian garage revival shtick that was done to death four years ago, but for what it’s worth, the band does it as well as an act like Sahara Hotnights. It’s on the subsequent track “Televisor”, however, where the band showcases their greatest asset, that being the charismatic Claret, who coos, croons, and screams her way around the song, displaying impressive vocal range. “Easy” chugs away with a Stooges-like intensity, Claret’s howls underscored by the slicing riffs of guitarist (and former Spacehog member) Richard Steel, while the glam-infused “Everybody Rules” shuffles along in Gary Glitter/Adam and the Ants fashion, highlighted by its gleefully inane shout-along, spell-along chorus (“E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y!”).
The band already has a pair of enjoyable singles on their hands (not to mention two stylish videos), one being the exuberant new wave pop of “Nth Degree” (yet another song where they spell out the chorus), and the other being the fun, bipolar “Jetsetter”, which doesn’t hide its Pixies influence, as Claret shifting from coquettish choruses to ferocious verses with the kind of frenzied passion that easily elicits those Karen O comparisons (“I’m writing from the bedroom, I’m ennui and in my cups/ All the kids are kissing in the bathroom, licking bags to get their ups”).
It’s when Ms. Claret delves into her more lascivious side, though, that the album starts to show more life. The slinking “Take Off Your Clothes” has achieved somewhat of a live reputation over the last year and a half, with Claret coaxing audience members to join her onstage to disrobe, and while the blatant swiping of the bassline from the ubiquitous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” might sound too obvious a gimmick, Claret’s salacious singing and Steel’s sinewy guitar fills make it more than just a curious novelty. Meanwhile, the smoldering “Body 21” has Claret declaring, “My body’s 21 but my mind is ageless,” and “Babysitter” goes a few steps further (“You gotta start some time/ It might as well be now”), with Claret playing the role of the worst, or coolest babysitter ever, depending on your point of view.
It’s no secret that Morningwood would be an incredibly dull band without the charismatic presence of Claret, who is clearly the main attraction. What the band lacks in originality is made up by Claret’s unadulterated verve, and like Southern California’s woefully underrated BellRays, they mark a welcome return to the libido-driven side of straightforward guitar rock. They still have a way to go yet if they want to really turn heads, but as long as Claret is at the mic, and the band provides the muscle, Morningwood’s sound will continue to be anything but flaccid.