The seedier side of the Sin City Strip, the surf’s-up beaches of Baja, a dark, doomy club in downtown Copenhagen: Twenty-one minutes is all it takes for the Raveonettes to power-steer around the world on debut disc Whip It On. And this oddball Danish duo does its aural globe-trotting with a glossy of Phil Spector taped to the cigarette-scarred dashboard and tattered copies of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and The Big Sleep sliding around the back seat. Know-it-alls have labeled this crazee mélange “new garage,” but with the raw rumble of the group mixing it up with lyrics a modern Philip Marlowe might utter, noir garage is more like it. Imagine the Hives with a bent fedora, fake vampire teeth, and a year’s supply of Sex Wax.
If you think that sounds scary, there’s more. In a nod to the Dogma 95 filmmaking manifesto of their homeland, partners (and just friends) Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo set strict rules for themselves: (1) All songs must be played in the same key, “glorious Bb minor,” (2) no more than three chords are allowed for the duration of the album, (3) no song can last more than three minutes, and (4) cymbals and high-hats are verboten. If the Raveonettes’ approach to songcraft sounds more than a little like musical Mad Libs, well, you’re right. But I like Mad Libs, and I like the Raveonettes a whole lot, too. Each silly diversion makes the time fly byand the strategic placement of dirty words always makes things
a lot funnier.
Despite all the dumb rulesplus the fact that the album was recorded in a matter of weeks with a drum machine four-trackWhip It On adds up to way more than the sum of its parts. Wagner, who sings, plays guitar, and writes all of the band’s songs, conceived many of the album’s eight tracks as he was trekking across America: Hell’s Kitchen in New York, an island off the coast of Seattle, downtown Las Vegas, and a small apartment in West Hollywood. As a result, Whip It On often plays like a drive-all-night travelogue, albeit one that involves a body in the trunk and the fast-approaching police.
Or, in other words, “Cops on Our Tail,” a ferocious track that Wagner says was inspired by driving through the desert just outside Los Angeles. With sirens wailing and a “Walk Like an Egyptian”-esque beat played triple-time, heavy-lidded heartthrob Wagner and 6-foot blond bassist Foo go fuzz-pedal-to-the-metal, harmonizing on the lines “Going to the place where all the lights/Shine on” as the men in blue get closer. This is driving music and then some; it’s no surprise that the duo croons, “Fuck you” over and over as they cruise unscathed into the song’s jangly fade, dueling middle fingers waving high through the sun roof.
There’s always something mean and nasty around the corner here, often a threat that’s literally out of this world. “Bowels of the Beast,” for example, begins with some thunder rolls before slow-crawling into perfect prowling music for a hunched and clawed Vincent Price. And album-opener “Attack of the Ghost Riders” has a big, bopping beat reminiscent of “Monster Mash,” layer after layer of echoing, swaggering guitar lines, and maniacal lyrics: “Clearing in my brain/Where the strippers go insane.” In fact, nothing makes sense until the end of the song, when Wagner and Foo chant the title over and over againwhich, come to think of it, doesn’t make much sense, either, but they deliver the line with such delirious conviction that you can’t stop yourself from droning alongand maybe hammering out a little air guitar, too.
The Raveonettes sound the most like garage-y Scandinavian peers the Hives on the album’s 2-, 3-, and 4-hitters: “Veronica Fever,” “Do You Believe Her,” and “Chains.” Of course, this is also when they manage to sound a lot like U2 circa Achtung Baby and the Jesus and Mary Chain circa Automatic. “Holding me down to that sultry, sexy sound/Walking around with your whip right off the ground,” Wagner sings on the siren call of “Veronica Fever,” the weird tale of a sinister stalker and his slightly more sinister stalkee. Guitars enter, echo, and exit on the blistering “Do You Believe Her,” yet another song on which Wagner and Foo sing in a near-monotone, their voices nothing more than another pattern on this dazzling aural wallpaper. “Chains” is thick, swaggering music for the final scene of a mid-20th-century women-in-prison flick, the Raveonettes urging a suddenly free ex-con to immediately cause more mischief.
Whip It On closes with the frenetic “Beat City,” a hang-10 ode that’s basically an angry “Surf City” and features some literally killer waves. In a parallel universe, Frankie and Annette would have shimmied their buns to this twist-and-howl and then knocked over a liquor store. Just like the rest of this quick, clever album, “Beat City” is fun, fast, and slightly more dangerous than a switchblade comb. CP