Garage Rock Round-Up: King Khan & His Shrines, Foxboro Hot Tubs
Garage rock has always been considered to be rather low culture– even by rock and roll standards– and, given some of its more common tropes, like its primal three-chord structures and its messy, lo-fi production aesthetic, it doesn’t immediately strike one as an art form that’s built to last. And yet, it’s those very characteristics– its primitive energy, its straight-to-the-gut simplicity, its contagious energy– that make it so enduring. Garage rock is alive and well in 2008, even as other, more complex or sophisticated styles of music fall into obscurity.
But of course, it’s also a genre that attracts its fair share of poseurs and gimmicks. There’s a lot more to keeping garage rock alive and kicking than simply recording your songs on old-fashioned, analog studio technology; the White Stripes can get away with it because they’ve got the songs to back it up, and indeed, that’s exactly what’s required– garage rock songs live or die not just by the primitivism of the sound, but also on the strength of their hooks.
I’ve heard two excellent platters of wonderfully rowdy, ramshackle garage rock glory this year, both of which revitalize the familiar form but also do it one better by not settling for mere revivalism, but, through humor, heart, and excellent songwriting, manage to be fully alive and in the moment. One is from an artist who’s just starting to gain some fame in the U.S.; the other is from a veteran band retreating from their success in the U.S.; and both are air guitar-worthy good times.
King Khan & His Shrines– The Supreme Genius of…
King Khan doesn’t take himself very seriously, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Reviews of his albums tend to focus on his persona– one is almost inclined to call it schtick– as a sex-obsessed Lothario, a tongue-in-cheek soul man, a swaggering and over-the-top rock and roll frontman. And certainly, that persona makes him a gripping and consistently entertaining ringleader for the musical circus that is the Shrines, but what it doesn’t take into account is that, beneath his gleefully demented sense of humor, he’s a heck of a good songwriter.
That’s on evidence throughout The Supreme Genius of King Khan & His Shrines, which isn’t really a greatest-hits album so much as a crash course on the band’s work, an introduction to American audiences, a chronicle of how he got here and why we should care. Every one of the songs on this album could easily pass for a lost relic from the garage rock era, with just a bit of Family Stone soul added on for good measure. Khan leads his massive twelve-piece band through barn-burning rock and roll stompers and a few soulful ballads, all of which are played with grit and vitality and just the right amount of sloppiness, perfectly complimented by the bare-bones production, which compresses the tinny organ, the blaring horns, and the ragged guitar into a deliriously appealing cacophony of sound and attitude.
But as great as the band is, this is Khan’s show. It’s not surprising that critics focus so much on his persona, as he brings a quirky sense of humor to these songs that ranges from a slightly weird to perverse to downright uncomfortable. And honestly, it’s a little much at times– his song about wishing to be a girl, for example, comes across as rather creepy– but elsewhere, as on the bluesy opener “Torture,” his off-the-cuff sentiments and irreverent approach to love and relationships is charming, in a goofy sort of way.
Foxboro Hot Tubs– Stop, Drop and Roll!!
When Green Day recorded a song with U2 a couple years back, it was a significant moment. Not only did it herald that the mainstream music scene had finally come to accept the punk trio on their own terms– apart from the fluke hit “Good Riddance,” their work never received as much acclaim as it deserved– but also that, with the American Idiot record, Green Day had become a serious band– even an Important one, releasing what is arguably the most major statement about American culture and politics yet released in the 2000s.
Of course Green Day will never take themselves seriously enough or write poetically enough to make anything as artful and meaningful as the best U2 albums, but it must be said that, in at least one regard, Billie Joe has done Bono one better. When U2 became the biggest and most important band in the world with The Joshua Tree, they promptly followed it up by sinking under their own pretensions on the uneven and sometimes obnoxious Rattle & Hum. For Green Day, however, the success of American Idiot has essentially had the opposite effect– rather than being crushed under their newfound importance, the band has shrugged it off by recording an album under a new name, Foxboro Hot Tubs, that is as straightforward and frivolous as American Idiot was ambitious and meaningful.
And with their old name they’ve thrown off any pretensions that could have possibly come with their new success; this is a back-to-basics record in the best sense of the term, a lean, concise set that finds the trio hammering out wonderfully raw and edgy garage rock tunes that are high on energy and attitude. Of course, they’ve captured the sound of 1960s garage rock remarkably well– the album was recorded on analog technology, of course, and it’s a surprisingly raw, messy recording– but that wouldn’t mean anything if the songs weren’t great, which they most assuredly are. If American Idiot was high on concept, the songs here are all about delivering straight-ahead rock and roll; and so, the lyrics are more about momentum and sound than actual meaning, meant to provide sing-along choruses and power the big hooks.
And oh, what hooks they are! Green Day has never written a song as catchy as the first single, “Mother Mary,” and the rest of the songs aren’t too far behind. It doesn’t hurt that they all rush by in a flash, only slowing down or trying different textures once or twice, which makes the album feel like a taut, lean and focused batch of rock singles that hit hard and don’t dwindle any longer than they need to.
Of course, American Idiot was a masterpiece by just about any standards, an exhilarating and challenging record that blended the rage and indignation of punk with strong pop songcraft and rock and roll attitude. This album doesn’t even attempt to be so ambitious, but, in its own way, it’s almost as remarkable of an achievement; it’s every bit as enjoyable and memorable as that last album, and, as far as pure rock and roll energy, this is the most fun party Green Day has ever thrown.