Like the tiger doesn’t belong in that cage, the Dirtbombs don’t belong underground.
It was a genius idea. Combine the power of two drummers, two bass players, and one frontman guitarist into an unstoppable force of Detroit funky rock ’n’ soul. Let the drummers synchronize and occasionally counter each other’s rhythms. Have one bassist play the rhythm and the other externalize emotional fuzz riffage like a overloaded circuit. And in front of it all: Mick Collins, a Motor City born and bred guitarist-vocalist whose talents bear the collective conscience of ’60s and ’70s punk, postpunk, and every funky soul sound from Memphis to his hometown.
This has been the Dirtbombs’ formula since their formation as ex-Gorie Collins’s vanity project in 1995. But the concept -- carried out by various lineups, though a fairly stable proposition for the past five years -- was simply too powerful to remain in the vanity drawer for too long. As touring has revealed, the Dirtbombs are a band capable of owning every club they set foot in, a speeding steam engine spraying hot mist and burning fumes to reenergize an art form -- rock ’n’ roll -- given up for dead as recently as the late ’90s. This is not your typical breathy vocal, emotionally detached, jangling, sounds-like-a-washer-and-dryer-in-the-next-room indie rock drivel, no sir. This is the real thing -- from the gut and the heart, not the Starbucks poetry reading.
Albumwise, the Dirtbombs are a relatively easy band to track, as their three long-players -- including 2001’s Ultraglide in Black, the best album of this decade, bar none -- can obtained via the familiar channels. Singles, however, were a much trickier prospect -- replete with limited editions and B-sides on myriad labels. Having a full set of all two-dozen or so 45s seemed impossible -- until this excellent compilation gathered most of them onto two CDs.
Though displaying all the elements that have made the Dirtbombs the greatest of the many fine Detroit bands of recent years, If You Don’t Already Have a Look offers an alternative glimpse of the Dirtbombs at their most eclectic. Not only do the covers run the gamut from snarling ’60s punk to ’80s new wave to even the Bee Gees’ pop-psych period, but the originals are equally diverse.
Disc one collects 29 of said originals in all their raw, raging glory, trading mostly in dissonant postpunk-cum-funk sounds like “Don’t Bogue My High” and “Candyass,” but encapsulating other threads as well. “Broke in Detroit (Again)” and “High Octane Salvation” add a bluesy element to the D-bombs’ basics, the latter containing a witty lampoon of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” intro. “Encrypted” is likewise an effective dig at Britpop, while the hyper-tempos of “The Sharpest Claws” and “(I’m Not Your) Scratchin’ Post” use feline metaphors to describe relationships. But just when you had them pegged, “Here Comes That Sound Again,” “Tina Louise,” and “They Hate Us in Scandinavia” rock out with melody, adding another shade to the Dirtbombs’ spectrum.
Disc two comprises 23 covers. The Dirtbombs, it should be emphasized, do not trade in mere straight reproductions; they dissect songs, find the key ingredients, then mix them together with their own sound for versions that are always different, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. Radically different would certainly describe a stomping remake of Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby” that benefits from a sped up, half-time arrangement. The Stones’ “No Expectations” gets a minor funky makeover plus a funny interpolation of the “na na na” chorus from “Hey Jude,” covers of Soft Cell (“Insecure ... Me?”) and the Romantics (“Mystified”) come from left field, and the remakes of Lou Rawls’ “A Natural Man” and Flipper’s “Ha Ha Ha” are truer to the originals, yet glossed by a Collins’ paint job.
And for those who’ve erroneously pegged the D-bombs as another Detroit garage rock entity, If You Don’t Already Have a Look offers their versions of two Aussie’60s punk nuggets, the Elois’ “By My Side” and the Black Diamonds’ “I Want Need Love You” -- both cool but neither doing justice to how they sound live, where they attack like a caged tiger being set free after months in captivity.
Like the tiger doesn’t belong in that cage, the Dirtbombs don’t belong underground. They belong in your CD player, on your turntable, or among your mp3 files -- if they’re not there already.