It seems cheap to quote press releases, but sometimes they possess infinite wisdom. In the one accompanying New Wet Kojak's latest, This Is the Glamorous, the writer says that "The concept album . . . is a musical conceit at best misunderstood, at worst reviled." No kidding. And yet New Wet Kojak, a onetime side project of Girls Against Boys members Scott McCloud (vocals) and Johnny Temple (bass) that has blossomed into a respected band on its own merits, has attempted to record one. The difference with This Is the Glamorous is that it's not so much a "concept" album as an album whose songs possess a unifying theme. There are no 12-minute mini-operas, overwrought narratives, or painfully poetic lyrics -- just dark songs about the decay and desperation under the surface of our modern symbols of glamour and success. Imagine the world of Cabaret updated for the new millennium; instead of Liza Minnelli flickering her green fingernails and proclaiming "divine decadence", we get a bruise-eyed supermodel throwing up in the bathroom.
"My baby is for real," McCloud declares on the opener, "The World of Shampoo", and that's the most positive statement you'll hear for the next 40 minutes. Nothing else documented in the song (or the remainder of the album, for that matter) is for real, whether it's Jordache, tan lines, or Coca-Cola. Perhaps most chillingly, this is "A world so close / So close to me / So close to you". Such grim lyrical perceptions pervade the album, from the declaration on "Something Easy" that "I just want to be different / Different, just like everybody else" to the question on "Bad Things", put directly to one of the phonies: "How ya holding up?" "I hear you're hanging out, etc." taunts McCloud, "And doing a lot of bad things". A mere one song later, on "Let's Get Glorified", he's slipped into the role of instigator and partner in crime, singing, "Luxury cars, luxury bars / Let's do it all / 'Til we can't walk no more / Come on, look alive / Let's get glorified".
While this is grim subject matter for a rock album, This Is the Glamorous is not a difficult listen, because the disgust is wrapped in an appealing package of diverse pop/rock sounds. While New Wet Kojak's previous output, comprising three albums and an EP, has earned it comparisons to Morphine, the only obvious connection displayed on This Is the Glamorous is that, like Morphine, New Wet Kojak has a saxophone player (Charles Bennington). A better comparison would be Goo-era Sonic Youth, due to the common language of the bands' '60s-inspired grooves and dual guitar assault (although Kojak's, courtesy of Scott McCloud and Geoff Turner, is considerably cleaner), not to mention that McCloud's voice sounds a lot like Thurston Moore's. Although augmented by a bit of electronic noodling from Turner, the groovy opening riff of "The World of Shampoo" can't help but remind you of SY's "Dirty Boots", while Nick Pellicciotto's percussion work also contains a hint of "Bull in the Heather". While the SY comparison can just as easily be applied to "Supermodel Citizens USA" (whose chorus contains competing guitar and vocal melodies, as in SY's "Sugar Kane"), but Kojak is no mere imitator. Other influences come and go, from the electro-heavy Suicide-meets-the-East turn on "Nothing You Can Say" to the tossed-off, Beat-like nature of the vocals on "Real World Tonight" and "Death 2 the Pop World".
Such touches make for a much less depressing listening experience than the title would imply, and also for a bit of irony: New Wet Kojak talks about the dark things behind the attractive surface, while putting an appealing veneer over its own dark stuff. Given that few artists have made music that sounds as ugly as its subject matter (Yoko Ono? Suicide? Ministry?), and the few who have aren't terribly listenable, that's not really a complaint. Plus, as the press release promises, "there are no elves, mods, or prostitutes" on this "concept album".