A long time ago, in my younger and more naïve days at the turn of the century, I fell in love with garage rock. And then she screwed me over. At first everything seemed perfect: the Nuggets box, White Blood Cells, hell, I even believed Lester Bangs when he told me how good those latter-day Count Five records were. But when the honeymoon ended I had a long way to fall. Most of the garage rock revival bands struggled with their sophomore albums and were either exhausted or broken up by their third. The Libertines, the Vines, the Strokes, they all let me down. I even found out that not only did the Count Five have only one album, it wasn’t even that great!
My love of gruff and grimy, back-to-basics guitar rock had me looking like a fool, and I wouldn’t let that happen again. I set ground rules; the most draconian of these anti-garage rock measures being that second albums were off limits. Gone would be the days of pinching my hard earned part-time pennies to buy hook-free snoozefests. Never mind a garage rock band heading towards Stones years — listening to 27-year-olds try to recapture the carefree fuzz-tones of youth was painful enough.
But just when I think my baseless generalizations are working, a band in their 32nd year goes and releases an album that kicks my ass. The Fleshtones have had their batteries recharged since joining Yep Roc for 2003’s Do You Swing, but not even two solid albums fully prepare the listener for Take a Good Look. Whereas the new millennium saw the band reaching to equal early songs like “American Beat” and “Girl from Baltimore”, their new LP recaptures the spirit of fun that practically dripped out of the speakers on those early IRS sides. Led by Peter Zaremba and Keith Streng, founding singer and guitarist respectively, the band rips through 12 cuts in a half hour that range from the exuberant victory march “Jet Set Fleshtones” to the British Invasion-inspired “This Time Josephine”.
Zaremba remains an ageless wonder on the microphone, the yelp of his youth having grown huskier and more expressive with years. On many tracks it sounds as if Julian Casablancas stepped out from behind his detachment to try out some Jagger moves. Doubtlessly a product of their near constant touring, the band remains as tight as ever behind Zaremba’s shouts, put downs, and hollers. His lyrics continue to mine a seemingly bottomless mine of classic rawk narratives — losing a girl to the big city (“New York City”), finding out a girl isn’t as modest as you thought (“First Date”), and confronting the judgmental masses (the title track).
In the grand tradition of garage rock singers turning innocuous statements into malevolent threats (see also: “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love In)” and “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”), Zaremba turns even his most tame lyrics into showtoppers. On paper, the self-explanatory “Going Back to School” might seem at best goofy, but his hoarse delivery meshed with the coarse rhythm guitar makes going to night school seem downright punk. “Feels Good to Feel” pays tribute to the simple pleasures of driving fast with the radio loud with the best riff on the album, a fuzzed-out “Satisfaction”-esque wonder, and an agile harmonica workout.
They avoid the easy side of retro by proving their Bowery pedigree, tempering the campy organ of “Jet Set Fleshtones” with fractured guitar, or ending the hipster baiting title track with otherwordly screaming. If hipsters dare buy an album that implies that they “block out the sun”, they might figure out what a less drug damaged Black Lips would sound like. And if the mass populace were to blast this from their stereos en masse, our generation might finally understand how much was lost in the move from analog to digital recording.
In a way, the Fleshtones have become what long-suffering Rolling Stones fans want their idols to be. As much as they have spent the last two years convincing themselves that A Bigger Bang was the Stones’ best album in 25 years, at the end of the day it was the same cynically bloated cash grab as every one of their recent tours. With the release of Sweat, Joe Bonomo’s elegantly written biography of the Fleshtones, the tribute record Vindicated!, and an upcoming feature length documentary all focusing on the history of the Fleshtones, one could’ve forgiven the band for trying to cash in on their past. Instead, they have some newly booked bar dates and an album you can play back-to-back with Roman Gods. Bring comfy shoes if you catch them this year. If they’re playing the stuff off this album, you may just spend the whole night standing.