Kiwi hard rockers get poppy AND hazy, deliver the goods.
First, some Datsuns-related housekeeping. Almost five years ago, in my review of their sophomore record, Outta Sight, Outta Mind I incorrectly identified the Datsuns as hailing from Australia (though in the archives, the article reads otherwise). They in fact call New Zealand home, and I’ve now seen enough episodes of Flight of the Conchords to know I’ve offended both nationalities dearly -- or at least the Kiwi who emailed me way back when to let me know not to confuse the cultures. Mr. A________, you know who you are, and I am sorry. To that end, I also need to congratulate the band for Headstunts, their new record, one miles removed from the lunkhead rock of Outta Sight, and one of 2009’s stronger hard rock releases.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Headstunts is an anagram of “The Datsuns” and this wordplay neatly summarizes the band circa 2009: a little bit of rearranging -- most notably, a new drummer in Ben Cole -- and a cleverness that sneaks up on you. These guys still rock, and do so unapologetically, but they’ve added both power pop clarity and psychedelic haze to their arsenal. On paper, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, guaranteed to infuriate two prickly genre fanbases who like their music just so, but -- surprise, surprise -- they pull it off with aplomb. I’m as shocked as you are.
As for the music itself, Headstunts breaks out of the gate with the blistering “Human Error” and “Hey! Paranoid People! (What’s In Your Head?)”, whose ‘60s Hammond riff should be prompting Deep Purple’s lawyers to pick up the phone with a cease-and-desist order any day now. And they’re so eager to rock, the fourth track is called “Ready Set Go!” -- it’s like the album started before they did and they can barely keep up with it. The power-poppy tracks rule Side B, especially “Cruel Cruel Fate” (with backing female vox from Kalle Gustafsson Jerneholm and Heidi Brownstone), the joyously stoopid “Highschool Hoodlums” (“Chain smokin’! / Shit talkin’!”) with a switchblade solo from Christian Livingstone and “Pity Pity Please”. Lyrics never being the band’s strong suit, the songs work best as a riff delivery service, and in that respect, they do not disappoint. Kudos, too, to the band for the clean, but not overly slick production: Headstunts is easily the Datsuns’ sharpest-sounding record … except when it's not.
As impressive as the results are when the band tighten up, the Datsuns' dive into a lysergic haze deserves even more commendation. The tracks that end each side -- “Eye Of The Needle” and “Somebody Better”, respectively -- flirt with the abyss, but never fall. We knew the Datsuns loved the Stooges, but who knew they didn’t skip over “We Will Fall”? Or, for that matter, dug the epic mysticism of Nothing’s Shocking-era Jane’s Addiction? A few active bands -- I’m thinking Outrageous Cherry and, to a lesser degree, the Warlocks -- can flip the pop/psych switch with ease. Let’s add the Datsuns to the list. Hell, they should anagram “The Datsuns” up again and come up with a new identity just to bash out psychedelic gems. Stunted Ash, anyone?
Unabashed hard rock gets a (sometimes deserved) bad rap, but -- and I promise this isn’t damning with faint praise -- Headstunts shows that the Datsuns are now less part of the problem than they are part of the cure.