[13 March 2006]
It can’t be a good sign for a band when only one of the four paragraphs in its celebrity-penned liner notes is actually about the band, and that merely is a paragraph rife with hoary these-guys-will-rescue-rock clichés. Unfortunately, that’s the fate that has befallen LA garage punks the Lords of Altamont ... and even more unfortunate is that this is only the first problem with their sophomore disc, Lords Have Mercy.
The Lords—singer/keyboardist Jake Cavaliere, bassist Spencer Robinson, drummer Thomas Sullivan and guitarists Shawn Medina and Dave James—scored what should have been a major coup when they got MC5 bassist Michael Davis to contribute to their liner notes. But Davis spends the first paragraph talking about his son’s desire to play drums; paragraph two describing how impressed the music store clerk (who turned out to be Cavaliere) was when he learned Davis was in the MC5; paragraph three outlining Cavaliere’s appearance (tattoos! Converse sneakers!), and paragraph four—finally!—talking about the band, albeit in the most general terms possible: “[They] sound like the rolling thunder of a stampeding herd.” Thanks for your time and effort, Mike. The Lords ended up with the liner notes they deserved, though, as Lords Have Mercys songs are too often as faceless and generalized as Davis’ words.
The Lords hit all the requisite garage/punk notes on Mercy, which can pretty much be summed up by its song titles: “Tough as Nails”, “Live Fast (Die Young)”, “Let’s Burn” and “Buried”. Toss in some punked-out guitar riffs and vaguely garage-y keyboard flourishes and voila! … instant album. And derivative song titles lead to lazy songwriting; most choruses (chori?) are just the song title repeated over and over, and lyrics like “Burning rage will set me free / Pick me up and set me free” suggested Cavaliere and the band once attended a writing seminar conducted by Michael Davis.
Is it any wonder, then, that the album’s best song wasn’t written by the band? “She Cried”, originally performed by Jay and the Americans (of all acts), is hardly a sea change from the songs the band themselves turned in—it is about disillusionment and features guitars and keyboards, after all—but with its neat little countermelody and heartfelt lyrics like, “And when I kissed her / A kiss that only meant goodbye / She cried”, it’s a standout on the album and less schmaltzy than the keening original, to boot.
That said, another encounter with a cover tune doesn’t fare as well for the Lords. For a band squarely on the heavy and loud end of the garage spectrum, the Lords’ take on the Chambers Brothers’ psychedelic R&B classic “Time Has Come Today” could have been interesting, or at the very least, more muscular. As it turns out, the band barrels through the song and Cavaliere mumbles the single most important phrase in the whole song: “My soul’s been psychedelicized!” ACK! At least it’s not 11 minutes long.
At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Methinks the reviewer doth protest too much.” While I understand that the best rock is often direct and plainspoken, if not a little dumb, and rock bands these days tend to celebrate the genre’s history rather than try to rewrite it (and there’s plenty of MC5 and Steppenwolf to be found on Lords Have Mercy) too much of the album feels rote and lacking in verve. Plus—and maybe it’s a little late in the review to mention this, but whatever: the Lords have a fine pedigree, as Cavaliere has put in time with instrumental surf rock legends the Bomboras, the Fuzztones and the Cramps, bands that knew how to rock, didn’t take themselves too seriously, and if they trafficked in cliché, did so with a playful wink.
The Lords of Altamont do rock out, so if that’s your primary qualification for album acquisition, by all means find Lords Have Mercy and blow out your speakers to your heart’s delight. Folks hoping for a little more oomph from their garage bands may find themselves asking the Lords for mercy.