[9 March 2008]
Along with the Detroit Cobras and the Hard Lessons, the Dirtbombs round out the top tier of Detroit’s garage-rock revisionist scene. It seems trivial to talk about positioning, especially since many of these groups collaborate and share musicians. But in a city rich in Motown nostalgia and disheartened spirits, the Dirtbombs can claim title as the unofficial message-bearer—reviving metro Detroit through pure force and will. We Have You Surrounded, the band’s 5th full-length release if you include the sprawling If You Don’t Already Have a Look compilation, delivers the group’s signature punk-soul renderings with a taste of pretty much everything else. Space prog-rock, distortion interludes, French pop covers; you name it, it’s here.
Following the cult success of the Gories and that band’s ultimately turbulent breakup, guitarist Mick Collins set out to create a new, more varied musical group. He founded the Dirtbombs in the mid ‘90s with the intention of recording only 7” records. The plan was subsequently squashed by an initial label’s demand for a full LP, but that “singles band” mentality still remains. With dual drums and bass guitars, the band holds the conviction that more is better. It’s a mantra that feels right at home in the EP-dominated era of 1970s soul, and the explosive, room-filling sound that characterizes the band’s live performances is successfully captured throughout We Have You Surrounded.
On “Sherlock Holmes”, guitars crunch over a mid-tempo march while Collins languidly pleads his worth. Originally taken from 1980s electronic pop duo Sparks, the cover replaces synths with background distortion and rallying drum rolls. If there were any such thing as a guitar-heavy, punk rock slow dance number, this would be it.
“Leopardman at C & A” places Collins behind a megaphone and adds a slight delayed emphasis to his description of a savage American landscape—consumption, media indoctrination, and all. Over thumping drums and streaky guitar cuts, he quotes comic book writer Alan Moore, proclaiming, “We’ll hunt down television sets and kill them for their skins”. There is a cynical undertone that pervades the album. But for anyone who has lived in Detroit for the past 20 years, a sense of disparagement is completely understandable.
Despite the diverse musical directions explored on this album, the band’s fixation with soul and R&B seeps its way into many of the songs. In the waning moments of album standout “Ever Lovin Man”, the frantic rhythm section and double churning guitars coalesce with Collins’ passion-drenched yowls. The track is a raw, energetic romp with an emotionally devastating quality that recalls 2001’s Ultraglide in Black.
Ultraglide showed that Collins could take on the hefty chops of Barry White, even imbuing his cover of “I’m Qualified to Satisfy You” with a cock-sure assertiveness that the original couldn’t muster. Collins’ voice harkens back to some of the grittier soul crooners of the ‘60s and ‘70s, singers like Otis Clay or Chuck Jackson. But he can just as easily shift from a deep baritone to a sweet falsetto that’s as delicate as it is manipulative. The variety of musical styles on Surrounded is certainly a testament to the band’s many influences, but more remarkably to Collins’ vocal dexterity. Regardless of genre, he has one of the most exciting and potent voices in music today.
Aside from the quizzical pairing of the abrasive eight-minute noise breakdown “Race to the Bottom” with a relatively neutral cover of the euro pop track “La Fin du Monde” at the backend of the album, the scattered nature of We Have You Surrounded is adventurous and wholly rewarding. This is the sound of an extremely skilled group of musicians working on every cylinder and impulse. And if you think these musical choices are bold, just wait for that bubblegum album.