Sometimes a little stereotyping can be a good thing. When I signed on to do a review of On Top of Things!, the debut album from Montreal-based quintet the Chains, I had never heard a note from them. All I knew was that they had a name that fit right alongside the likes of the Strokes, the D4, the Libertines, the Datsuns, et al. If I had done a little gumshoeing pre-review, I would have learned that the Chains share a label -- Get Hip Records -- with the Cynics, the Paybacks and the Gore Gore Girls. Fortunately, my assumption that having a "The" band name meant a group was a garage band was dead-on right. My shoulder is starting to hurt from patting myself on the back, so let me move on.
The Chains -- lead singer Alexandre Boivin, drummer Eric Boulanger, bassist Frederic Charest, rhythm guitarist Jean-Philippe Cournoyer and lead guitarist Sebastien Hould (told you these guys were from Montreal) -- have the name, and they've got the look: five mop-topped young guys on their album cover, looking just disaffected enough to come across as cool instead of bored. And on the cover's lower left-hand corner, a '60s Mod font announces "The Chains - On Top of Things!" The album cover alone could give Little Steven's Underground Garage host Steven Van Zandt a hard-on. And sure enough, the press release accompanying On Top of Things! boasts that "one of the band's numbers has been selected track of the week on Underground Garage." So they got that going for them, which is nice. But how do they sound? The Chains don't just slap on guitars, play some sloppy chords and wait for the accolades to roll in. For their debut, they've synthesized such influences as Nuggets-era garage, Rockpile, and R&B over 12 tracks and a not-a-second-wasted 33 minutes.
Album opener "Her Name Is Love" wends its way though blues, garage and roots rock all while maintaining a Mod air. "Loving Man" finds Charest's loping bass yielding to a guitar solo courtesy of Hould that would make Dave Davies proud. I tip my cap to any band that recognizes the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" as ground zero for garage rock. But the band is not all about aping Nuggets -- which is good for a band like, say, the Greenhornes, but amounts to little more an Animals tribute band releasing an album. (Though it must be said the Chains outright steal the riff from the Del-Vetts' "Last Time Around" for "Nothing Left Behind". I checked the liner notes for shared writing credit with Dennis Dahlquist, only to find none.) "You Don't Know" throws in an R&B-tinged chorus that sounds right at home with the rest of the album.
And how many bands out there sound like Rockpile nowadays? Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe and Co. were an anachronism/new wave offshoot when 1980's Seconds of Pleasure came out -- a time when garage wasn't experiencing the boom it is today. A cover of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" and "Try, Try, Try" both honor Rockpile's rock revivalism.
And like Rockpile, the Chains tackle a few covers (as evinced by the Reed track mentioned above). Naomi Neville's (aka Allen Toussaint's) "Fortune Teller" is run through a little quickly and can't match the Who's definitive Live at Leeds version. In the band's defense, the song has been covered dozens of times, so a fresh approach is required. But "Baby What You Want Me To Do" and Eddie Cochran's "Nervous Breakdown" hold up favorably to the more well-known versions.
While the Chains hew closely to the early garage formula -- that is, more jangly than fuzzed-out and tuned down low, and tweaking it enough to make it their own, they breakaway on occasion, as if to prove they're aware it's 2003, not 1966. "Look the Other Way" features a muscular guitar solo that, while welcome, doesn't quite fit. And "It's Not the End" blends Boivin's and Cournoyer's voices in a quasi-ballad that showcases the band's slower side.
The Chains have the advantage of honing their craft in Montreal, below the radar of the American and British press ready to anoint a fresh-faced garage band as the Next Big Thing. Even so, if On Top of Things! is any indication, they're exactly that.