Solid Motor City garage debut elevated by boy-girl vox... and is that a country twang I hear?"
Loretta Lynn's recent masterpiece Van Lear Rose brought about several changes to the music scene: it got Lynn MTV (well, MTV2) airplay, added fringe jackets to Lynn's buddy/producer Jack White's wardrobe, and, most importantly, it proved that country and garage could share a bed. Detroit trio the Hard Lessons took the, um, easy lessons imparted by Van Lear Rose to heart. Their debut, Gasoline, is a great mix of crunching garage guitars (they are from the Motor City, after all) and bold, twangy, countrified female vocals that hits the mark more often than not.
Really, co-lead singer (more about the other "co-" in a minute) Korin Cox is more indebted to country/soul chanteuses Neko Case and Dusty Springfield than she is to Lynn, but she shares a brassiness with all three women. "That Other Girl" could be a track from the 1960s that got lost somewhere between Memphis and Detroit, and only now is surfacing in 2005. Cox exhibits a bluesy swagger on "All Over This Town" -- she sounds like Case fronting the 45s (one of my dream collaborations, if you must know) -- and she strikes a blow for feminism/monogamy on "How It Is With Me" as she tells a beau "If I belong to you / Then you belong to me / That's how it is with me".
Lest you think the album is nothing but loping countryish tunes, sung by some countryfried torch singer, I assure you that Gasoline is a rock record, through and through. In fact, it's the other co-lead singer/guitarist, Agostine Visocchi, who keeps the Hard Lessons decidedly in the rock camp. (In the interest of mentioning everybody in the band, drummer Christophe Zajac-Denek also keeps a rockin' beat.) Visocchi bangs out a sleazy guitar line and fuzzed out vocals on the opener, "Feel Alright", and on many of the band's duets -- "Share Your Vanity", "Feedback Loop" -- Visocchi plays the role of snarler, while Cox is the charmer; they're like a more garage-y version of Young Heart Attack's Chris Hodge and Jennifer Stephens... except that, unlike Hodge, Visocchi can actually sing. On "Milk and Sugar" he quietly notes that he'll "take milk and sugar in my tea" (is he getting in touch with his Jack White dandy side? Or maybe following fellower Detroiter Brendan Benson, who's also been known to sing about tea?), before ending with a menacing "I hate everything about you!" Somehow, these two disparate notions fit comfortably in one song. The band also earned the stamp of approval from Dr. Detroit himself, garage guru/producer Jim Diamond, who twiddles the knobs on "Inspired/Admired" and "How It Is With Me"... so they've got that going for them, which is nice.
Really, the Hard Lessons should consider themselves lucky that they have two vocalists with different strengths who know how to push and pull against each other and create something greater than the sum of their parts. Detroit is brimming with fantastic garage bands, and without that hook, they're just another very good rock band fighting for attention in a crowded scene: an MC5-worthy riff here ("Stop! Stop! Stop!", "Feedback Loop") a fuzzy, funky keyboard here, courtesy of Cox ("Feel Alright", "Inspired/Admired"); it's solid, if unexceptional, material. Fans of Detroit garage will not be disappointed, but vox aside, the Hard Lessons aren't breaking much new ground. Here's hoping they take the (cough, cough) lessons learned from Gasoline -- More Cox! More country influence! -- and apply them to their second disc.