The Fleshtones: they either can’t stop or they won’t stop. Either way, their 22 long-player, Face of the Screaming Werewolf struts into 2021, chewing gum, winking at girls, and generally looking like it’s going to get into trouble in exactly the same way that their 1981 debut record did. Peter Zaremba and Keith Streng are still hanging on, as are the period-correct, fuzz-toned guitars, blues wailing harp, and garage band organs. The band has looked at the prevailing music trends of the 21st century, said “Nah” and made an all killer, no filler record that’s both as old as the hills and fresh as a daisy.
The title doesn’t exactly fill a potential listener with much hope. B movie imagery has been a lyrical staple of garage rock since day one, so seeing Face of the Screaming Werewolf writ large on the cover and track one may cause an eye roll or two. It takes about eight bars of music to dispel any preconceptions. Although the tune is loaded with all the buzzwords you’d expect, it romps along beautifully with a chorus that is as catchy as it is corny. So, what’s track two going to be about? Vampires? Splitting up with your girlfriend? Arguing with Mom? Nope. It’s about Alex Trebek. The band may be unlikely fans of Jeopardy, but the charming lyrics seem heartfelt. “Watching Alex will make you smart,” sings Zaremba. Maybe he’s right. The electric 12-string guitar on this also takes you back to the days when Peter Buck was the coolest human on Planet Earth.
There’s a nice tip of the hat to their spiritual heroes, the Rolling Stones, halfway through side one. “Child of the Moon”, the humble B side to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, is given a raucous but respectful makeover by the band. The focus may have been shifted from gothic psychedelia to gritty, old-school R&B, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Have the Stones ever covered the Fleshtones? I’d pay good money to hear that.
“Swinging Planet X” is one of two groovy instrumentals on Face of the Screaming Werewolf. Zaremba blows that harp until he bursts a blood vessel while the rest of the band bang away at the Bo Diddley beat behind him. And yes, there is a bongo solo. To hear this kind of back-to-mono, lo-fi primal grooviness is very refreshing in 2021.
To prove how far the Fleshtones are removed from the prevailing viewpoints of the 21st century, “Manpower Debut” is an unapologetic treatise on masculinity. With a tongue firmly in his cheek (I hope…), Zaremba sings, “I’m no Little Lord Fauntleroy”, before demanding extra cheese on his pizza. That may be a euphemism. Balance is restored on “You Gotta Love, Love” where the singer reveals his feminine side. “Can you believe in a power called love? / Love power, even the hippie kind,” he asks. As philosophical questioning goes, it’s hardly Descartes, but it’s a cute lyric.
And just to prove the band are really all sweethearts when you get beyond their gruff exterior, “Waiting on a Girl” is a plaintive tribute to the perfect girl, who just hasn’t shown up yet. It’s a great example of 1960s psych-pop in the style of the Troggs, who it’s safe to say, are a massive influence on the band. It’s a lovely tune that’ll have you reaching to the back of your wardrobe for your kaftan. Or maybe not.
“In a world where there are no more heroes, the Fleshtones walk the earth like Roman gods,” says their press release. Now that’s kind of a big stretch. But in a world closed for renovation at the moment, the Fleshtones are maybe walking the earth like Roman centurions. That means they must be at least 30 years of age, have many years of service, and be highly disciplined with unswerving faith in the cause. Sounds about right to me.