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Our president recently appeared in public wearing a ZZ Top baseball cap. I guess the Tres Hombres’ songs about beer drinkers and hell-raisers evoke Mr. Bush’s boozy memories of his Texas-sized adolescence. Or maybe he’s trying to connect with his rock-oriented constituency. If the latter’s the case, I suggest he ditch the ZZ capafter all, the Top sank into the tar pits of rock irrelevancy about 6 million bonghits agoand fetch himself a hat with “The Kiss Offs” written on it. Because Austin’s Kiss Offs are the coolest thing to crawl out of Texas since the Butthole Surfers, and their newly released Rock Bottom is, bar none, the best CD I’ve heard all year.
Like our commander in chief, the Kiss Offs are no strangers to youthful indiscretion; onstage, they’ve been known to blow things up, set fire to their instruments and each other, and generally make Replacements of themselves. This explains why Real TV recently saw fit to air a video of one of their shows: It ended in a club-wrecking riot. But not to worry; I’m sure that sooner or later the Kiss Offs will transform themselves into model citizens. Heck, maybe one of them will even grow up to be president. One of them ought to, anyway, because these folks have big dreams and even bigger heartsnot to mention more idealism than a roomful of Peace Corps volunteers.
But while you’re waiting for them to take over the country, you might as well put on Rock Bottom, their sophomore long-player, and have some fun. It sounds like what you’d get if you tossed all your favorite punk and New Wave records into a blender: a dash of the Modern Lovers, for organ-propulsion and heartfelt sincerity; a dollop of early Talking Heads, for angular guitar and oddball vocalizations; a pinch of Patti Smith, for histrionics; a shot-glass’s worth of Replacements, for drunken anarchy; a smidgen of X, for shared boy-girl vocals; and a glop of B-52’s, for pure goofball enthusiasm.
The band (Dwayne Barnes on drums, Travis Higdon on guitar and vocals, Katey Jones on keyboards and vocals, Phillip Niemeyer on guitar and vocals, and Gavin Scott on bass) plays a quirky variant of the same organ-fueled raunch rock that teen degenerates have been twitching their skanky hips to for decades. But the Kiss Offs play it with more smarts, panache, and high spirits than anyone since the Modern Lovers circa their first LP. You see, the Kiss Offs love rock ‘n’ roll. They love it so much, in fact, that it’s all they want to sing about. I’ve always believed that the only true subject of rock ‘n’ roll is rock ‘n’ roll, and the Kiss Offs seem to agree. With such rockcentric song titles as “The Freedom of Rock,” “Love You Hardcore,” and “Broken Fingers for Talented Singers,” Rock Bottom is about as self-referential as rock gets.
The album begins with the great sleazy Casio riffage and nifty boy-girl tag-team vocals of “Let Me Find the Good in You,” an upbeat love/hate song about that special somebody who’s “So good at pissing me off/That you could even do it/ With your eyes closed.” It’s a timeless number whose only fault is that it’s followed by the even greater “Love You Hardcore,” which couples a mighty Velvet Underground/Modern Lovers organ line with some great slurred vocals and the best lyrics about being in love with rock ‘n’ roll since “Roadrunner.” Niemeyerwho sounds more New Yawk than Texasgets overexcited telling us all about a song that “approximates the feeling” of “holding hands in the record store.” Have you ever been so in love with a song that it feels as if your heart’s gonna burst? It may be nearly impossible to express, but Niemeyer gives it his stammering best: “Love you mighty love ya uh mighty mighty mighty love you mighty love ya uh uh oh so mighty ’cause you never ever ever ever ever failed to treat me right.” Now that’s love, and if you’ve got a heart and even one functioning ear, this song will likely make you feel the same way.
“Broken Fingers for Talented Singers” vamps on a tense, Televisionesque guitar riff and isn’t so much a song as a DIY manifesto for aspiring rock stars: “So you can’t sing, then scream and shout/’Cause if it’s in ya, it’s gotta come out/Three chords are great, but one will do/And forget the truth, sing about what you know.” It includes one of the greatest avowals I’ve ever heard of the “faith, love, and hope” implicit in rock ‘n’ roll fandom, with Niemeyer and Jones sending the song out to “Young girls ages 10 to 21/Singing, screaming the words to ‘Born to Run’/All alone with your loneliness” and ending with a benediction: “May the music be there for you/Just like it was/There for me.”
The musicraw as it isis the perfect backing for the band’s sentiments. Like the best punk rockers, the Kiss Offs are too busy trying to express the inexpressible to be bothered with tuning their instruments, much less mastering them. The organ pushes the melodies around. The guitar solos are frenetic, slapdash affairs. The drums are there to keep the beat, period. Just check out the hilarious and defiant “The Freedom of Rock,” which starts out with a polished quasi-Cars guitar riff that is quickly roughed up by Higdon’s adorably unpunk punk vocals: “When they found me I was bleeding in the dirt/And when they found me I was lying upside down.” After singing about how his Les Paul makes him feel 10 feet tall and about how he really can’t sing but always gives it his all, he cries, “I can rock like a mountain!” as the guitars get all reverby and join the organ for a long, swaggering victory lap.
Of course, no great rock album is complete without a supersugary bubble-gum love song, which is why the Kiss Offs give us “Mmm Mmm Mmm.” It’s pretty and sweet and can be found, I’m sure, on every tabletop jukebox in rock ‘n’ roll heaven. On it, Jones namechecks Bubble Yum and various other great chewing products only to conclude that her “favorite of all/Is the sweet taste of you.” Sure, it’s goofy, an atavistic throwback to some simpler, more innocent rock ‘n’ roll past that probably never existed in the first place. Hell, it might even be a put-on. But if so, it’s done with a smile rather than a sneerwhich is what redeems every sainted song on this love letter to “sweet rock ‘n’ roll.”
Rock may be in ruins, its temples defiled and its slogans as bankrupt as those of Marx and Lenin, but the Kiss Offs have built a mansion amid the rubble. CP