In the sweepstakes to make the most derivative rock album ever, the Thieves live up to their name.
The Thieves: It's Grand Larceny Not to Love Them! Naaah. Doesn't really make sense.
The Thieves: Rip-off Artists of Rock! Now that's more like it!
This debut album from the Thieves, a rock trio out of Oxford, England via LA, is a lesson in rip-offery. It is, indeed, thieved. It is a common, if energetic, amalgam of rock poses -- riffs and shouts, big choruses and standard theatrics, inadvertently humorous lyrics and utterly predictable song structures -- that simply reminds you of other, better bands that did it all just like this some 20, 30, or even 40 years ago.
Which is to say: there is a good chance that this album will be very popular. But we can hope it won't be.
The disc starts with a seriously tell-tale sound -- the sound of recording tape being run backwards, presumably into the past. I think that the Thieves mean for us to hear the retro sound that they embody. The tape slips backward, and then a huge guitar riff, a rhythmically strummed chord, takes over. Tambourine and cymbal are crashed, then a rolling drum pattern that sounds as much as possible like Keith Moon brings us to the bassline and the verse. It is meant to sound authentic and really fucking rawking, but as the organ enters on the chorus and the whole thing pops out of the mold, you wonder if this isn't, actually, Jack Black in School of Rock, expertly aping "rock" while also winking at you. But the wink is missing. Instead the song goes on through its paces: a return to the guitar riff, a stop-time moment just before the chorus repeat, a repeat of the chorus over just bass and tambourine before a guitar solo that your cousin has been practicing in his bedroom for all of eighth grade. By the time the drums go double time at the end -- then back to the riff and to another pseudo-Who touch on the ending -- you almost can't believe it.
Believe. Each song is very well-crafted. The whole package sounds exactly like the rock music you've heard a thousand times before. If you like playing the music critic, you can catalog the influences: AC/DC, a touch of Van Halen guitar, an unfortunate penchant for Boston, some half-hearted Stooges (but not really, because one thing Iggy never was was half-hearted), even some Pink Floyd for you stoners out there. These guys are like a really good cover band, I guess -- they play other folks' stuff with serious conviction, except each song is not quite a cover. They just seem like covers, but they're missing the one thing that everyone likes about covers -- the great tune or unforgettable lick that made the cover well-loved or original in the first place.
The title, Tales From the White Line, is meant to underline the authenticity of the Thieves. Hey, man! These guys are a real rock group! They tour in a van from city to city and kick ass and sleep with crazy chicks and play cool guitars! They have long hair and a surrealistic-ish album cover like bands used to! The song "This Road (It Never Leads Us)" includes talk about "The Man" and what the lead singer has to say to The Man about selling out. Aside from the degree of nonsense in these lyrics, they seem calculated to make the listener feel that the Thieves are cruising the American roads with Man-defying integrity. Nothing could be further from the musical truth.
Instead we get things like "Vacant Thoughts". Starting with a brief head fake in the direction of the Police, the tune then slams into a metal groove that shifts quietly into a Nirvana/Pixies-esque verse that explodes into a harmonized chorus. I mean, you've got rock 'n' roll whiplash well before you get to the guitar-and-vocal only bridge. A symphony of influences and tactics, "Vacant Thoughts" exhausts you without pleasing you at all.
How about the next track, "My Old Mind". The Thieves Unplugged! Yeah! You didn't think they were going to miss that MTV cliché did you? Man, there are some fake cellos on this song! These rockers are real sensitive-like too! "In my head / There is a man / With his mind / He burns me down". These guys write poetry! Then the synthesized violins and violas kick in, man, and you've got a piano line in there too -- "Have I lost / My old mind? Can I turn this back / Will I leave this track? / Will you give me / My old mind?" Somebody better sleep with these guys immediately because they are sensitive as well as rocking. And they're British.
Just to be fair, this is a highly competent rock band. The singer can carry the whole thing. They do rock, if that's your thing. The songs are catchy little treats, even if they're massively derivative. The album sounds good on your car stereo, sonically at least. I have a feeling they would rock your local club, and good.
But so what? Go listen to some Thin Lizzy or some Badfinger or even the Darkness. Right, the Darkness, those metal-regurgitating guys from last year with the hit song "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" and the unitards and the big silly grins. The Darkness are part of all this, I guess, just another episode of the British selling back to America its musical past with a smirk. But the Thieves aren't smirking. They are dead sincere about all this rock thievery. "We get high every night! But you take me home most every night!" they sing.
Really? Will people really be taking this stuff home? Will they really be hearing it on the radio all August and all autumn?
I hope not. Let us, please, hope not. Where is Jack Black when you need him?