When Dirty Sweet came on the scene in late 2003 and early 2004, the local hipsters didn’t know what to make of them. We were still knee-deep in ’80s nostalgia popularized by the likes of the Killers, Interpol, and Franz Ferdinand, and Dirty Sweet didn’t look or sound right by those standards. There were no skinny ties, no synthesizers… a lot more Robert Plant than Robert Smith. Not much had changed by the time the band released their debut album, …Of Monarchs and Beggars, in 2007. I had a friend tell me he thought they were a classic rock cover band, and another came right out and used the term “cock-rock”.
So, in 2010, with the success of acts like Wolfmother and Kings of Leon, a much more receptive audience that awaits Dirty Sweet’s second album, American Spiritual. And wouldn’t you know it — they pick this moment to go all contemporary on us. While staying firmly rooted in the “scuzzy, ass-shaking rawk ‘n’ roll” exalted by the NME some years back, Ryan Koontz and company have decided to branch out a bit. These guy might still look like Shooter Jennings’ family reunion, but they don’t necessarily sound like it anymore.
Certainly, …Of Monarchs and Beggars had its share of rockers on it, but American Spiritual brings the guitar stomp to a whole new level. From the opening strains of “Rest, Sniper, Rest” to “Crimson Cavalry” and the fuzzed-out tail end of “Star-Spangled Glamour”, producer Doug Boehm manages to convey the kind of intensity that has made the band’s live show celebrated on two continents. Nathan Beale (guitar) and Chris Mendez-Vanacore (drums) have chops for days, and here they let rip in a way that their previous effort just could not capture. In gauging the catchiness factor, let’s just say that the chorus of “Please Beware” or “Get Up, Get Out” might get stuck in your brain’s transom for a good long while.
Lyrically, Koontz stays with perennial rock ‘n’ roll subject matter: sex, insanity, death. “Freedom in my sights / Can’t never turn around for fear what I may meet / Meet the one who made you / Or meet eternity,” he sings on the title track. It’s not Dostoyevsky, but it’s a hell of a lot deeper than their previous fare, like the tale of a closet-raiding former lover (“Hey, Delilah / Won’t you give me back my favorite blue jeans?”). “Marionette” has the loping, cinematic quality to match its spaghetti-western video, and the haunting, thoughtful turns on “An Empty Road” and “American Spiritual” show still more desire to transcend the good-time-boys image they’ve acquired.
But the good times are a big part of what makes these ten songs so eminently listenable, so enjoyable, so repeat-button-friendly. Best of all, they don’t immediately conjure images of guys in turquoise belt buckles who look like Gregg Allman’s character in Rush. As those judges on American Idol are always yammering on about, Dirty Sweet have managed to make their sound “current”. The year might be less than halfway over, but American Spiritual is on my short list for best releases of 2010. These guys have all the makings of a great American band: hook-laden melodies, rock-solid musicianship, a tireless work ethic, an incendiary live reputation, and a frontman who is as charismatic onstage as he is enigmatic offstage. They’ve got the look and swagger to spare. Now all they need is a chance for this album to reach enough ears, and the rest will take care of itself.