It’s a tale as old as rock ‘n’ roll itself. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and others emerged and changed the course of popular culture in the mid-1950s, but before too long, someone is complaining, “Rock ‘n’ roll is dead!” Then, when a band or solo artist comes along to shake things up (like, say, the Beatles), somebody screams, “Well, they’re just ripping off Elvis!” Or Little Richard, or Chuck Berry, or all of them.
Rock, rinse, repeat. But that’s as it should be. Rock’ n’ roll in the 21st century moves forward when young fans discover it, dig up its past and start messing around with the bones. Splice together a bit of the Doors, a pinch of the Beatles, a dash of Bowie, and a scoop of White Stripes, and what do you get? Something new, but not so “new” that people won’t get it. However, there will always be critics ready to bandy the word “derivative” around any artist that dares to wear influences on their sleeves. Just ask any band that dared to cop a few Led Zeppelin riffs (as if Zep never copped a riff or two or, in the case of their debut, a whole handful of riffs).
That brings us to Velvet Starlings, a Los Angeles band that have just released their debut album, Technicolour Shakedown. In a bold and nervy move, Velvet Starlings open the album with a woozy organ that sounds like it would feel perfectly happy on the first Animals album. The title of this opening track is “She Said (She Said)”, which, for those keeping score at home, is just an opening and closing parenthesis away from being a Beatles song title. And not just any Beatles song title. A Beatles song title from Revolver.
That’s right: these guys have a ton of nerve. Nerve isn’t all Velvet Starlings have, though. Technicolour Shakedown is a stone-cold blast featuring hooky tunes, trashy organs, and dirty guitars. And I mean “trashy” and “dirty” in the best, most rock’ n’ roll sense of those terms. Velvet Starlings are the brainchild of Christian Gisborne. As he did with two mini-albums (2018’s Velvet Starlings and 2019’s Love Everything, Love Everyone…), Gisborne wrote, played, and produced Technicolour Shakedown on his own, at home. After recording the album alone in the pandemic, Gisborne recruited Foster and Hudson Poling, brothers he’d met and bonded with while standing in line at a Cage the Elephant show, to complete the band, on bass (Hudson) and drums (Foster). A second guitarist, Ashton Minnich, has also joined the band.
While Technicolour Shakedown is Gisborne’s DIY affair, it avoids the claustrophobic feel that can sometimes infect completely solo projects. The album maintains a lively, ragged-but-right atmosphere from “She Said (She Said)” through the brief instrumental closer, “Turn It On”. Electric guitars and organ vie with Gisborne’s rowdy vocals for the spotlight throughout the record. Occasionally some lyrics, like “Ah, you know we’ve got some young ideas / We’ve really got to drive into your ears” and “The speakers kicking out some rock ‘n’ roll / We dig vinyl ’cause it’s got more soul” emerge from the swirling sounds.
Technicolour Shakedown clocks in at an efficient 30 minutes, just a bit longer than either of the previous EPs. Gisborne is just 18, but he has mastered the art of get in, rock, get out and leave the listener wanting more.
Technicolour Shakedown is a fun album, though it is not necessarily a leap-and-bounds improvement over Velvet Starlings or Love Everything, Love Everyone…, both of which have their share of tuneful delights. And make no mistake: Velvet Starlings are not reinventing the wheel here. Technicolour Shakedown is essentially garage rock for the 21st century, spiked with a few Jack White-ian tricks and some blasts of new wave energy, but that’s all it needs to be. In other words, Technicolour Shakedown is one hell of a good time. Rock ‘n’ roll will live to see another day.