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These days, a good American garage band is hard to find. So hard, in fact, that U.S. rock critics and music-biz executives are turning to Britainalways a bad idea. The U.K. music press’s breathless and fleeting taste can be very entertaining, but the New Musical Express and its ilk are known for a lack of proportion. These are the publications, after all, that elevated Oasis from clever rip-off act of the week to Greatest Band in the World.
Oasis, against all expectationsnot to mention common senseis still extant, but Britain has a shortage of brawling three-chord bands. Fifteen years of electronica and post-rock have weakened Britpop’s will, producing endless choruses of genteel pop from outfits such as Shack, Travis, Coldplay, andthe next entry in this categoryStarsailor. So British trend-spotters have had no choice but to go West, past Wales all the way to New York (the Strokes), Detroit (the White Stripes), and Florida (Andrew W.K., whoever he is, identified on the cover of a recent NME as the “Saviour of Music”).
Such British fancies would be amusing if isolated to their country of origin. But with the contemporary American music scene so fragmented, mainstream music pundits don’t know where else to find the next bubbling-under phenomenon. Even if British taste in American underground bandsfor Sparklehorse, say, or Mercury Revis reliably obscurantist. Next thing you know, a group like the Strokes is making the leap from a U.K. indie label to an American major and getting reviewed as widely as if it were the new ‘N Sync.
Of course, we need the Strokesor something like them. A blast of garage rock is always bracing, and it is particularly salutary in an age of chart-topping songs that seem to have been written, produced, and even sung by market-research experts. In New York, Cavestomp! has been mingling veterans of the mid-’60s Nuggets era with a new generation of fuzz-guitar-and-Farfisa-organ pushing-too-harders. And in Seattle, Sub Pop has issued a 22-song retrospective of Radio Birdman, a Detroit garage band that just happened to be from Australia. Of course, the group would be just as well served by excerpting its one great idea, the Hawaii Five-0-quoting “Aloha Steve & Danno” on some compilation. All a garage band really needs is a single indelible song; a whole album of strong material catapults it into a different category altogether.
In Britain, where the garage-band tradition owes as much to the Buzzcocks as to such actual mid-’60s acts as Them and the Pretty Things, a new garage/punk revival used to commence every few yearsand fade almost immediately. That was just as well in the case of upstarts such as Birdland and These Animal Men, whose first few singles were thrillingand whose prospects of long-term careers were nil. Still, a couple of good songs is more than the Strokes have.
The hype may overwhelm the Strokes, but right now their boosters are trying to create an anti-backlash backlash: If you don’t like the Strokesand I don’tyou’re supposed to be just as susceptible to hype as those who bought the group’s original ballyhoo. Maybe so, but the quintet’s Is This It is just not very interesting. In fact, I’m less amused by singer Julian Casablanca’s Lou Reed-ismswhich slip and slide like Helena Bonham Carter’s American accent in Novocaineor the guitarists’ tiresome up-and-down riffing than by the band’s resemblance to Jonathan Fire*Eater.
Like the Strokes, JFE was a New York-based quintet of swaggering prep-school grads, although the latter combo formed at D.C.’s St. Alban’s rather than in Gotham. Both groups were rapturously hailed in Britain before getting an American deal, and both rode their U.S. endorsements to a flurry of stateside publicity. Of course, few remember Jonathan Fire*Eater today. After all, it’s been four years since the band’s only album was released.
I don’t trust the White Stripes’ neo-blues schtick, either, but I admit that the duo’s White Blood Cells has grown on me whereas Is This It hasn’t. Ironically, the Stripes seem to take strength from their commercial marginality in their homeland. Though they’ve signed a big deal in Britain, their raucous and spare soundguitar, drums, and occasional pianois unlikely to inspire any American executives to reach for their checkbooks. The Stripes’ music is as much an anti-gimmick as it is a gimmick.
Of course, in these self-conscious times, garage rock is itself a ploy. For most of the garage-revival groups that have appeared over the past 20 years, the perfect paisley shirt and bowl haircut are as important as the ideal chord progression. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite recent garage bands is one that can never credibly simulate the Shadows of Knight. The Zoobombs feature the driving rhythms, pumping organ, and elemental attack of a Nuggets act, but if they occasionally sound as much like Cibo Matto as the Velvets, they’re entitled: They’re from Japan.
The Zoobombs have great grooves, butas Is This It apologists are reluctant to admitsongs matter, too. Which is why my band of the moment is not the Strokes but the equally generically named Scooters. This Cardiff quintet’s Peepshow is less garage-rock than power-pop. (The difference? Sprightly rather than chugging. And vocal harmonies. But the Scooters do have an organist.) If not quite the second coming of the La’s, this quintet is easily as good as Big Leaves, another Welsh group that’s never going to get the Strokes treatment. Scooters songs such as “Dwti,” “Bones 2 Ashes,” and the title track are sharp, sweet, and fizzy. Remarkably, this album was actually released by an American label, albeit a small one. The Scooters have generally been ignored over here. Maybe they should move to Tampa. Mark Jenkins
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