Austin's The Kiss Offs are dead and gone (one member has moved to Chicago, and three of the others are now in different Austin-area bands), but before leaving us, they've offered up Rock Bottom as their posthumous legacy. And what an offering it is -- it purports to take a look back on the band's descent into the sordid, beer-drenched rock 'n' roll lifestyle, putting it all on the line (career, family, good hygiene, etc.) for The Rock(TM). Kiss Offs songs are all of two types, and pretty much only those two types, both of which are in evidence here: the love/lust/sex triumvirate; and a flat-out love for rock 'n' roll. The former are pretty good tracks, like the almost Le Tigre-sounding "We Can Work It Out", the Zombies-meet-Doors retro-garage rock of "Let Me Find the Good In You", or the vaguely Wolfie-ish "Mmm Mmm Mmm", but it's the latter variety that really get my attention, at least.
But first, what the heck am I supposed to think, here? One of the first impressions I get about these kids is that, well, they're smart. And I don't mean smart as in "they do well on tests," but more that the whole of Rock Bottom's a carefully-built satire; it comes off as tongue-in-cheek, sometimes going so over-the-top that it feels like the band's outright daring you to call them on it. Do The Kiss Offs really, truly mean it when they sing about rocking out to their favorite bands and downing Lone Star ("Prolonged Adolescence"), or is it all a big, sarcastic indie-rock joke? Hell, I have no idea.
And in the end, does it matter? At some point in your life, you should be able to stand up and profess your love for something, ridiculous though it may seem and regardless of any consequences, and maybe that's what's going on here. But if not, who cares? The music on Rock Bottom is some darn fine rock, however you choose to view it. To my ears, it harks back to the days of early garage-pop, when keyboards all sounded like that one in "96 Tears", and when it didn't matter if a band played pretty pop songs, because that didn't mean they couldn't kick your ass up and down the block. The instruments are all recorded flat and up-front, with no studio shine or trickery, and that enhances the sound, at least for the band's purposes; they come off like The Make-Up on acid, or maybe a freaky reincarnation of the MC5 as filtered through the mind of Black Francis (although NOT that of Frank Black, thank you very much). "Love You Hardcore", an ode to bands and friends gone by, takes the listener on a rocking, fun carnival ride, and "Broken Fingers for Talented Singers" almost sums up the band's simplistic esthetic with the line "Three chords are great/but one will do".
Finally, the band trumps everything beforehand with an out-and-out rock opera (albeit a short one, clocking in at around 7:30), "Pleather Pantz", that brings to mind the more frenzied moments off the aforementioned Make Up's Save Yourself, among other things. Part I, "Cut Your Pretty Face", is an outright threat, dark, surf rock-y, and a little scary, which fades off into Part II, "Studio Headphones", sinking down into an tense, echoing field of quietly-plucked guitars and sinister cymbals. The track comes back in and picks up speed for the spiritualized Part III, "The Power of Rock & Roll", with an exhortation to the listener to take off his or her shirt, wave it in the air, and give themselves over to The Rock, and closes by revisiting the first bit in Part IV, "Cut Your Pretty Face (reprise)", finishing in a violent, dangerous burst. Which, if you think about it, probably says just about everything The Kiss Offs were trying to say all along.