Ah, the illegal stimulant. Where would rock be without you? Thank you LSD for the Small Faces and the Beatles; God bless you heroin for the Stooges and Lou Reed; and even coke — well, you may have sent David Bowie into a late ’70s tailspin, but at least you tried to kill Motley Crue as well. Still, for all the creative highs and legendary lows attributed to Class A narcotics, nothing compares to the delights of alcohol for sheer rock ‘n’ roll class. Take Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Janis Joplin, to name but a few superstars who have enjoyed a tipple here and there. Sure, they may have all died young and bloated, but at least they left behind unquestionably fine gin-soaked legacies and got to push the odd TV set out of the odd window beforehand. And isn’t that really what rock’s all about?
One group who might agree are the Deadly Snakes, six pallid ne’er do wells from Toronto who look and sound like intimates of both the bar and the gutter. Co-fronted by singer-songwriters Andre Ethier and the improbably named Age of Danger, the Deadly Snakes have found sanctuary on the garage punk/dirty soul label In the Red Records. Like label mates the Dirtbombs, they pick and plunder from nearly every great ’60s movement to make a garage/soul/blues/rock/gospel hybrid of such raw, unvarnished vitality that you can almost smell the sweat, whiskey and sin rising from every stabbing organ chord and blast of brassy horn. In essence, they’re a Memphis soul sextet composed solely of drunk white guys, they’re a Phil Spector girl group with Adam’s apples and hangovers, they’re the Animals if the Animals were Geordie piss-artists (which the Animals, of course, were), making the Deadly Snakes the first hard-drinking Canadian band to successfully channel the spirit of a hard-drinking English band from the North pretending to be a hard-drinking American band from the South. All of which makes about as much sense as their latest and greatest album Ode to Joy, a sodden, schizophrenic record with an inebriated internal logic all of its own.
Now, let me make one thing clear. Ode to Joy is not a party album. It stomps and shimmies in all the right places, but lyrically this is coal-black stuff, an ironically named collection mixing gallows humour with lashings of torment and pain. Whereas listening to the Deadly Snakes’ second record I’m Not Your Soldier Anymore is a bit like spending time with a hyperactive member of Animal House, Ode to Joy expands the band’s emotional canvas. The experience is more akin to sharing 13 shots of rye with an occasionally charming, often aggressive, frequently funny, world weary, unswervingly morbid, emotionally wrecked barfly who’s just been kicked out of the house for the umpteenth time by his long-suffering wife and is drinking to ease the pain that drinking itself has wrought. You’re never quite sure how the next shot will affect his mood, but you know that you’re in for an evening of ranting and tears with enough glimpses of soused lyricism and old-fashioned storytelling that you don’t mind having to pick up the tab at the end of night.
The whole shebang begins with “Closed Casket”, a rock stomper based upon flailing drums, pounding piano and Ethier’s barked vocals. As an opening gambit, it’s exuberant and almost unbeatable. The next track, Danger’s “I Can’t Sleep at Night”, is a sneering garage tune about the sorrows of love and life that lyrically sets the tone for, well, the entire album. Whether by the bluntly titled “I Want to Die”, “I’m Leaving You”, or “There Goes Your Corpse Again”, the Deadly Snakes either know the inherent musical mileage to be had from heartbreak or they’re the unluckiest saps in rock. Hell, the band even seem to take some comfort from the condition; for a song about lovesick suicidal urges, “I Want to Die” is a damn infectious singalong and the break-up pop of “I’m Leaving You” works well as a twisted response to the Turtles’ “Happy Together”.
Although Ode to Joy is propelled by one overriding theme, the Deadly Snakes play more than relentless rock. The album’s tone abruptly changes with the third song, “Playboys”, a woozy waltz that, without wishing to labour the point, sounds a little like the Rolling Stones’ “Time is on My Side” doused in liquor. The fourth track “Oh My Bride” (a stripped down gospel track consisting solely of guitar, handclaps, and testifying vocals) represents another volte-face. From here on in, part of the record’s pleasure lies in its freewheeling shifts in style, from the swirling organs of “Burn Down the Valley” to the Dylan-esque “Everybody Seems to Think (You’ve Got Some Kind of Hold on Me)”. The penultimate track “Sink Like Stones” is an achingly pretty lament that Nick Cave or Tom Waits would be proud to call their own whilst the final song “Mutiny and Lonesome Blues” returns to the intense, Appalachian-style religious mania of “Oh My Bride”. One of the simplest yet wildest tracks on the album, the song uses a thumping drum and lone organ to again back a plea for love that ends with the closing line, “I will be there for you / And I expect you to be there for me too”. It’s a tiny glimmer of hope and trust in a sea of overwhelming despair, and a heartfelt finish to a turbulent and touching LP.
In a time of two-bit garage bands and hopelessly studied chancers, the Deadly Snakes are the real deal, a fearsome group inspired by the usual suspects but creating music of upset, anger (and, yes), even the odd glimpse of joy that is uniquely their own. Maybe I’ve overstated the influence of alcohol on this record — I mean, for all I really know, the band could all be as sober as judges — but whatever their poison, whatever their muse, in Ode to Joy they have made one of the finest albums of 2003. Touching, tragic and completely kick-ass, the Deadly Snakes have raised the bar. To them I raise my glass.