A snatch of a mostly-forgotten conversation with a friend close to a year ago really stuck with me: he said “pretty soon, this whole ‘garage rock’ thing will sound as dated as the swing or ska movements of the late ’90s do now”. At the time, I couldn’t see it — after all, this was the return of RAWK, while that ska and swing stuff sounded like a novelty at the time.
But sadly, my friend was right, and now that there’s been an avalanche of garage-rock-revival acts breaking through, most of them with one decent single but little else, it’s exposed that poor production values and underdeveloped soloing can’t hide that a bad song is a bad song. And it’s with this wariness that I initially approached Caesars‘ 39 Minutes of Bliss (In an Otherwise Meaningless World) when I first saw it fly onto the racks at the CD store where I spend my days. I mean, c’mon, they practically have a “the” band name, the title of their album recalls the meaninglessly good-timey vibes of garage rock dreck like the D4 or the Datsuns, and they’re on Astralwerks, a label which couldn’t have anything less to do with this type of music, which only makes the entire enterprise scream “cash in”. And from reading other press about this album, I sense that most reviewers stopped here — that most threw the disc on and sat through the horrid opener “Sort It Out” (exemplified by the atrocious line “I wanna smoke crack / ’cause you’re never coming back”) before banging out a review about the death of nu-garage.
But here’s the catch: past track one, this is actually a pretty damn good album. Things turn around on the second track, the flat-out fantastic “(I’m Gonna) Kick You Out” (first heard by many American listeners on a commercial for Smirnoff Ice, where a bunch of co-eds get all sudsy in a laundromat). The song lays out Caesars’ gimmick-a thumping farfisa organ, that could make them sound like The Doors but actually makes them sound a little more like the Inspiral Carpets — and that organ pulses and pounds through this three-minute nugget. Each chorus finds the song bursting forth into the kind of classic shout-along punk-pop anthem that we’d hoped every “new rock” band would produce. In short, it shows this band is capable of something more than I’d expected.
The rest of the album follows in a similar vein — it’s ’60s-influenced, up-tempo garage rock with shiny choruses and that insistent, thumping organ. Occasionally the band takes much-welcome detours deeper into ’60s pop and psychedelia or ’70s arena rock, and those diversions not only keep things interesting, but they prove that they have the versatility of some much-ballyhooed (and much-ignored) revivalists like The Shazam or Even. There are plenty of highlights; the album’s second single, the equally fantastic “Jerk It Out”, is a slightly more laid-back concoction of Britpop and neo-garage. “Only You” and “Crackin’ Up” exhibit that the band owes as much to Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks as they do to the more traditional garage influences of “You Really Got Me” or “All Day and All of the Night”.
If 39 Minutes of Bliss feels like it’s packed with a few too many “highlights”, it’s because it is — it’s actually a compilation of tracks pulled from various albums and singles released by Caesars in Sweden in the last five years or so, packaged here as an introduction to American audiences. But in keeping the set to 39 minutes (only a minute longer than Go-Betweens frontman/genius Robert Forster recently said he thought was “the perfect length for an album”), there’s very little filler. The presence of class-A material and singles means that this is one of the strongest late entries into the nu-garage movement. So while Caesars may not have the prescience of the White Stripes or the relevence of The Strokes, but they do have a few singles on par with the Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” (this album is as a whole is even a tad better than the not-that-great Veni Vidi Vicious) and that’s more than most of their peers, and it’ll make most listeners pretty happy with how they spent their 39 minutes.