Let's start out by agreeing to quit talking about the Von Bondies in reference to Jack White. White may have co-produced the band's first album, Lack of Communication, and he might have brought them some bizarre publicity by punching vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter Jason Stollsteimer in the face, but that's all in the past now. Pawn Shoppe Heart effectively puts the music first and makes the music -- and not the history -- the newsworthy story.
We can't ignore all the history around the Von Bondies, though. The new album's sound owes enough to its roots to warrant discussion. The Bondies come out of the hot Detroit scene, and critics have latched on to the garage sound associated with other, unmentionable bands at the forefront of that style. It's an insult to suggest that these two men and two women can be summed up with references to Detroit, Mick Collins, and the like. Pawn Shoppe Heart features as much glam as grit, sitting on the borderline between '00s Motown and '70s New York punk. The Von Bondies play like the New York Dolls with less makeup and more soul.
Stollsteimer's voice focuses many of the tracks on the band's major label debut. He cites Otis Redding and Eric Burdon (The Animals) as early influences. His voice and presentation don't reflect these singers as much as his ability to emote without becoming theatrical does. He's direct and expressive without whining or turning maudlin. Occasional echo effects have been added to the vocals, creating a successful sound that suggests the Von Bondies' desire to move past a true minimalist garage sound.
Marcie Bolen's guitar-playing remains true to its tradition. Bolen frequently drives the music by rapidly down-picking some basic chords. She shows restraint on her rare solos and keeps her lead-work tight. Her guitar's slightly fuzzed out, but with a full tone. Although Bolen and Stollsteimer's six-strings drive the songs, they don't steal the show.
The track "Been Swank" best reveals the Von Bondies' aesthetic. Don Blum's drums and Carrie Smith's bass open the track before a loud, steady guitar joins in. The almost cymbal-free drums keep the beat with few flourishes as Stollsteimer raggedly sings, intelligibly, but without too much consideration for enunciation. The song has a classic rock feel, but the lyrics are up-to-the minute. The title puns on Ben Swank's name, a member of the Soledad Brothers and a Detroit scenester. Stollsteimer nods to the past and present, growling, "I've been swank and loving it." The shift in verb tense, like the song as a whole, betrays a focus that's split between the sounds of both the old and new. The Von Bondies pull together these different concerns suprisingly well not only on "Been Swank", but also throughout this cohesive album.
The first single, "C'mon C'mon" rocks harder and more accessibly. Stollsteimer's questions ("Will I never learn?") are answered by Bolan and Smith's entreating calls of "C'mon, c'mon." "Tell Me What You See" follows, and it promises to be a big hit, with it's intense boy-girl vocals and throwback guitar lines. As much promise as the two tracks have has single, they fit together even better with their natural flow on the album. "Been Swank" comes after them to change the pacing, but not the intensity. Pawn Shoppe Heart is an album that warrants beginning-to-end play.
Stick around for the hidden track at the end of the album, too. It's a garage cover of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" that merges R&B with Doors-like sound. I can tell if it's exactly good, but it's hard to say anything bad about a track that makes me think of the Vines' Craig Nicholls singing about a girl who gets woolly.
Early in the album, Stollsteimer sings that "No one takes you seriously when you're 24," but anyone dismissing the Von Bondies is missing the boat. Pawn Shoppe Heart is a record as relevant for its divergences as well as it's similarities to the scene it arose from, and, in case it matters, this record is more fun to listen to than Elephant. Sorry, but it had to be said.