Time once again for Hotly-Tipped Garage Band of the Week Round-up: This time around we've got New York City's (natch) the Star Spangles, who besides having a name more befitting a preteen girl dance troupe, also have the Salvation Army chic and requisite big guitars. It's a recipe for clichéd disaster, right? Well, it's true that the Star Spangles don't do anything that hasn't been done since the days of The Stooges and MC5, but I'll be damned if these guys don't have genuine heart. The past year or so has produced enough contenders/pretenders to the garage rock revival throne who released soulless records, subscribing to some theory that ironic t-shirts, a whiff of buzz from the press, and a few guitar chords mean instant fame and respect (see the D4, the Vines, et al.). Those albums had their moments, to be sure, but good luck finding a beating heart in the mix.
Bazooka!!!, the Star Spangles debut, won't give you a big hug, playfully punch you on the chin, and tell you to cheer up, but it does hearken back to a less cynical garage rock era. Album opener "I Live for Speed" could be a 21st century "Highway Star" if it weren't most likely about methamphetamines. The rhythm section of bassist Nick Price and drummer Joey Valentine put the proverbial pedal to the metal while lead singer Ian Wilson slurs his words either because he thinks he's Paul Westerberg or he can't keep up 'cause the song's rocketing off with or without him. Good stuff, and it sounds raw as hell; the band worked with Ramones producer Daniel Rey, so that pretty much answers any questions as to how the album hits the ears.
Unpolished cracks and seams appear on nearly every track. "Which of the Two of Us Is Gonna Burn This House Down", besides being one of rock's better questions this year, sounds about 30 years old and summons up the ghost of Johnny Thunders, the band's most obvious influence. (This point is driven home on a cover of Thunders' and Wayne Kramer's "Crime of the Century", off an old Gang War bootleg.)
Perhaps it's the simplicity of the songs that I interpret as a lack of cynicism, but the sunny Replacements-esque (there's Westerberg again; obvious influence Number Two) "Angela" and the anguished "I Don't Wanna Be Crazy Anymore" despite their opposite upbeat and manic-depressive themes, respectively, bear out my theory. Lead guitarist Tommy Volume -- can you believe that stage name didn't get snatched up some time in 1969? -- brings a shaggy-dog likeability to the songs, and tosses out enough fuzz and jangle to fulfill acceptable garage rock quotas; there's not too much to the songs, but they're not just going through the motions. And Volume's solos ain't half-bad either.
Of course, there's only so much territory a band can cover when they're not charting any new territory of their own, and the band does their best to fight off a feeling of sameness that starts creeping in mid-way through Bazooka!!!. "Stay away from Me"'s pounding chorus and the Nuggets-jangle of "I'll Get Her Back" (formerly the Hoodoo Gurus' "I Want You Back" from their 1983 debut Stoneage Romeos) do what they can to breathe a little life into songs about hating girls and loving girls. The band does offer one genuine girl-based gem, "If We Can't Be Lovers", where Wilson's couplet-ending snarl "We can't be friends" competes with Price's elastic bass line and some infectious handclapping for primacy. The tune almost excuses the misguided ballad "In Love Again", about which the less said, the better.
By the time the album closes with "The Party" (Chorus? "At the p-a-r-t-y!" Duh.), a throwaway anthem Andrew WK only wishes he could write, there's no mistaking that there's no faking fun. Enough garage rock is released on a weekly basis that it's easy to confuse the pretenders with the real deal, but unless The Star Spangles are parodying freewheeling late '70s, early '80s rock with poker faces extraordinaire, these guys are here to play no-frills rock 'n' roll music. As their patron saint, Johnny Thunders, once lamented, "You can't put your arms around a memory" -- true, but you can honor it with a fine debut album.