We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
If there are any rock stars out there who deserve our pity, the Von Bondies are definitely among them. At this point, the Detroit-based four-piece is probably known best for having a leader whose ass Jack White well and truly kicked. After the two went mano a mano recently at a Motor City hot spot, head Bondie Jason Stollsteimer was left black, blue, and several shades of deep purple. For his part, Renée Zellweger’s favorite boy toy—who also happens to be Stollsteimer’s former mentor—emerged from the fracas bearing his customary whiter shade of pale.
With that sorry episode racking up miles of column inches, the 25-year-old Stollsteimer is probably more than ready to change the subject. So it’s a good thing that he’s got an attention-grabbing new talking point: On the evidence of Pawn Shoppe Heart, his band’s second proper long-player and a mighty fine major-label debut, the Bondies are poised to shunt their rivals outta the way and preside over what’s left of the neo-garage-rock nation all by themselves.
These days, of course, that may not be much of a prize. But there’s no denying the freak-of-nature power of Stollsteimer & Co.’s latest—and without a doubt greatest—album. First but hardly foremost among the cantankerous new record’s many accomplishments is exposing the White Stripes’ overpraised Elephant for what it is: one great song (“Seven Nation Army”) tacked onto a collection of so-so tunes and a star turn at the mike by Ms. Meg (“In the Cold, Cold Night”).
Unlike that disc, Pawn Shoppe Heart is a full-blown and fully realized rock record, an album concocted by a band capable of synthesizing—as opposed to merely regurgitating—its beloved antecedents. What’s more, unlike a certain lower-register-phobic Grammy nominee, the Bondies understand that great rock ’n’ roll albums are built on soulful grooves as much as accomplished string-wrangling. And Pawn Shoppe Heart has grooves by the truckload. Not coincidentally, Stollsteimer has the good sense to employ a bassist, too.
Consider set-opener “No Regrets.” The track is a veritable throbfest, a creepy Cramps knockoff that rides on Carrie Smith’s lumbering bass line and drummer Don Blum’s slightly-off-the-one backbeat as Stollsteimer makes like Lux Interior’s way younger brother. “You feel buried, you feel bored,” he sneers over his band’s swampy ruckus, finding just the right combo of rockabilly yelp and postpunk ennui. “No one takes you seriously when you’re 24.” It’s a decent couplet, sure, but it’s made great by Stollsteimer’s expertly tossed-off delivery.
That maniacal caterwaul, in fact, goes a long way toward separating the Bondies from the rest of today’s Nuggets-lovin’ youth. More than most approaches to music-making, revivalism requires its creators to bring something special to the table. In Stollsteimer’s case, it’s some genuinely primitive-sounding vox. On “C’mon C’mon,” a rubbery, spring-loaded rocker built on a chord progression that’s equal parts Nirvana and Howlin’ Wolf, he even manages to make some rather wistful nostalgia seem swaggering and sinister. “With my teeth locked down I can see the blood/Of a thousand men who have come and gone,” he growls. “Now we grieve ’cause now is gone/Things were good when we were young.” Not for nothing is the song the disc’s first single: If its lewd ’n’ lascivious rhythm doesn’t get the thing bumped off the nation’s soon-to-be-sanitized airwaves, “C’mon C’mon” could be the next “My Sharona.” It’s just that good.
And so is “Not That Social,” three minutes of effortlessly catchy blitzkrieg pop that find Smith pulling double duty as a lead vocalist. “You’re not that social,” she chides sweetly. “Just a good drinker.” The oversexed and frenetic “Poison Ivy” is another keeper—and, given the band’s obvious affection for all things Cramps, presumably an homage to that band’s guitarist—as is the disc’s title track. Granted, the latter is a bit of a sonic challenge. But larding up your first major-label bow with nine minutes and change of feral foot-stomping bespeaks a band that has as much confidence as record-company cash to burn.
All of that said, Pawn Shoppe Heart ain’t flawless. Though living-legend producer Jerry Harrison captures all the crustiness even better than White did on the Bondies’ 2001 debut, Lack of Communication, Stollsteimer’s songwriting muse occasionally lets him down. “Crawl Through the Darkness,” for example, starts out with a promising New Wave guitar riff but devolves quickly into a B-grade KISS B-side. The slinky “Right of Way” comes bathed in a cave’s worth of reverb—yet contains only a trace amount of melody. And “Tell Me What You See” indulges in the kind of retro-repro chic that the White Stripes also traffic in, a stylistic straitjacket that the Bondies usually manage to avoid.
Still, the album’s hit-to-miss ratio definitely favors the former, particularly because the great songs on Pawn Shoppe Heart are a lot greater than the so-so ones are so-so. “Broken Man” is a case in point. Appearing in the key second-track slot, the song finds our heroes setting the stage for what’s to come with the kind of reckless abandon that only a band in clear possession of its sound can muster. “I’m a broken man,” Stollsteimer concedes, while the other Bondies flail away behind him. “This here’s my broken band.”
Coming from White’s erstwhile sparring partner, that lyric packs quite a punch. It’s true, of course, that Stollsteimer lost his recent battle with White in fairly spectacular fashion. But with their brash and raucous new record, the Von Bondies have pretty obviously won the war. CP