Researching the Blues is one monster of a record, full of big, (yes) bluesy riffs while retaining a delectable pop sensibility.
When it comes to researching the history of California power pop band Redd Kross, you’re bound to run into road blocks. At the time of my writing of this piece in early July 2012, their 1990 major label debut, Third Eye, was readily available on iTunes, but that disc’s follow-ups – 1993’s Phaseshifter and 1997’s Show World – were conspicuously absent from the music downloads store. Go to Amazon.com, and you’ll probably see that copies of Phaseshifter are retailing for more than $30. Suffice to say, being a bit of a completist of the band in this day and age might be a bit of a challenge, or at least one that you might have to be prepared to shell out a bit of coin to obtain. Thankfully, Redd Kross are now coming out of a 15-year hibernation, emerging with the same line-up as their well-regarded Neurotica from 1987, giving those who might have missed the group during their major label heyday a chance to see what the fuss was all about. In any event, Redd Kross is one of those bands with a trophy case full of tracks that should have been hits, but strangely weren’t, the music being out of some sort of fashion with the grungier times, I suppose.
In fact, it’s hard to understand why Redd Kross weren’t more popular, as they are a group with a healthy love of all things schlocky and pop culture related. Even during their earliest incarnation as a youthful – the band was more or less still in their teens – hardcore punk outing, they were singing songs about Exorcist actress “Linda Blair” and were paying homage to killer Charles Manson with their song "Charlie" (and by, alas, covering one of his songs, "Cease to Exist", years before Guns N’ Roses did the same trick) and Runaways guitarist Lita Ford. And while the Replacements were declaring that they hated music half a continent away, Redd Kross were pronouncing that “Notes and Chords Mean Nothing to Me”. Moving forward in their discography, you’ll find references to ‘70s cartoon shows and cereals (“Frosted Flake” from Neurotica), cute all girl Japanese pop bands (“Shonen Knife” from Third Eye), and the ubiquitous “After School Special” (from Phaseshifter) of certain listeners’ youth. That trend continues with their latest, Researching the Blues, which pays respect to horror movies of the ‘30s, with tunes such as “Dracula’s Daughters” (not to be confused with the similarly named song fragment that Colin Meloy of the Decemberists introduces on their recent live album as the worst song he’s ever written) and “Meet Frankenstein”.
As that would indicate, Researching the Blues is one monster of a record, full of big, (yes) bluesy riffs while retaining a delectable pop sensibility. This is a record that’s all about letting your hair down and having a whale of a fun time, nothing more or less. However, we need records like that – especially during the dog days of summer – and Researching the Blues is a record that you can blare out of your Camaro as you cruise the Sunset Strip looking to pick up chicks on a hot day. If you’re looking for evidence as to just how giddy and energetic this record is, the song “One of the Good Ones” actually ends with the sound of someone burping. Clearly, someone is kicking out the jams here.
It’s a bit intriguing on the surface that Redd Kross has chosen to marry Stones-y riffs with their brand of almost Beatles-esque power pop here, but the decision shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the intervening years where Redd Kross was on hiatus, bassist Steven Shane McDonald recorded his own version of the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells (cheekily calling his take Redd Blood Cells) and he is also now a member of the hardcore punk supergroup OFF! So, definitely, there’s a certain swagger and “let’s turn the amps up to 11” nature that surrounds Researching the Blues. And the songs.... My, the songs -- particularly the opening triplet salvo. “Researching the Blues” is a catchy foot-stomping anthem that will get heads a noddin’. It’s a stellar start, but then “Stay Away From Downtown” not only emerges as the album highlight, but also ranks up there amongst the very best songs the band has written, full of crunchy and yet jangly guitars that definitely recalls the power pop nuggets of Big Star. “Uglier” is a riffy, punishing basher of a number that harkens back to the band’s work from Neurotica. It’s a great start to a record, and the remainder of songs are generally not slouches either. Particularly when the band unleashes the “ba ba bah"s as they do on “Dracula’s Daughters”.
Now, one may carp that the hook from “The Nu Temptations” is just a bit of an inversion of the riff from the title track, and may suggest a band that didn’t have a whole lot of original ideas to throw at the record. As well, a few songs, particularly in the second quarter of the album, feel rather off the cuff and loose, fizzing by without landing much of an impact. Still, Researching the Blues is a welcome addition to the Redd Kross pantheon, and some of the songs reach the same sort of dizzying heights of a “Mess Around” or “Jimmy’s Fantasy” (the band’s ode to the joys of masturbation and self-pleasure). But even among some of the not-quite-there tracks (the less than two-minute “Meet Frankenstein” for one), there’s still some great stuff to be found here, and the album overall is quite the enjoyable slice of blue jeans rock. (And, let’s admit it, even the very best albums boast some questionable tracks.) For a group that has been inactive for a decade and a half, Researching the Blues is simply a return to the good times of Generation Xers' coming of age years that each Redd Kross album offers listeners a chance to revisit. This disc offers listeners the same kind of comfort that re-watching your favourite episodes of The Brady Bunch or Scooby-Doo will bring back, and that is certainly a laudable accomplishment.
Overall, Researching the Blues shows a band making some minor adjustments to their sound, without losing the impact that their music conjures up. Or, more basically, Researching the Blues is a record that you can just turn up and jump around to in your basement with a big, goofy grin on your face. In the face of having some very hard to find albums that aren’t easily scored (or don't go quite so easily on your pocketbook), Researching the Blues is more than a release that just revisits old glories – it builds on them, and serves as a more than serviceable reminder that Redd Kross is a band that a lot of people have let slip through their hands. Rectify that. Buy this album. Especially well before you might have to pay some sort of exorbitant price for it, like much of their ‘90s output.