Nick Curran & the Lowlifes: “Reform School Girl”

It’s a winning recipe: Borrow the sound of old-timey, pre-Beatles rock and roll, filter it through the sneering attitude of punk, and ratchet the sleaze factor up to eleven. The result: A howling party record that’s campy in all the right ways and tasteful about being totally tasteless– a rock and roll revival record with a major emphasis on the rock and roll, and proof that what the kids were playing in the 1950s still kicks today.

That’s a fairly major feat, and Nick Curran pulls it off with casual bravado on Reform School Girl, an album whose neon-tinted, punk pin-up album art goes a long way toward describing the attitude of the music contained inside. Yes, Curran sings songs about partying and loose women and rock and rolling all night long. He even writes a catchy little tune about killing an unfaithful lover. But if you think he’s just trying to insert shock-jock theatrics into a retro rock record, the man is one step ahead of you: This is what rock and roll has always been about, and if you think “Kill My Baby” is so vile as to offend, you’d better not listen to any of the raucous, dirty blues songs from the 1930s– or any time thereafter. This stuff is in rock’s DNA, and Curran’s genetic gift is splicing these inherited traits into something thrillingly alive and modern.

He does consider himself a bluesman, by the way, though Reform School Girl bears little resemblance to what they call blues in 2010. But Curran knows his music history: He knows that there was a time when Howlin’ Wolf was considered to be just as much a rock and roll singer as Little Richard, and Little Richard copped more than a few tricks from the blues. And if this record sounds a bit more Richard than Wolf, that’s only because Curran doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about genre descriptions.

And that’s what makes this more than a nostalgic piece. Curran begins and ends his album with cover songs: First there’s Etta James’ “Tough Lover” performed here as a screaming rock and roll raver, and finally there’s AC/DC’s “Rocker,” a punkish hard rock tune that sounds in this setting like it could’ve been a staple of a good old-fashioned sock hop. In between, Curran borrows liberally from Little Richard’s howl and his lickety-split piano vamps, but also from the dirty guitar squall of garage rock. A less confident artist might have pushed this all through a filter to give it that 1950s haze, but Curran keeps his music sounding modern, even as it sounds like a throwback. He brings all the right production touches, too, from frenzied horns to a girl-group homage that would have done Phil Spector proud. In short: This thing is hot.

It’s been done before, of course, but that both states the obvious and misses the boat. The closest antecedent I can think of– save for the albums he’s drawing direct inspiration from, of course– might be Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure; like that 80s classic, Reform School Girl betrays an unwavering affinity for 50s rock and roll but no particular desire to replicate its sound in painstaking detail, instead bringing it– kicking and howling up a mighty ruckus– into the present-day.

But an even better comparison is this: Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Curran’s fondness of this music recalls the director’s own recollection of the grindhouse cinema of his youth, in that he savors not only the form, but the outrageous, B-level camp that lurked just below the surface. He knows what he’s doing has a certain trashy genius to it, and that’s what makes it brilliant. Reform School Girl is pulp rock and roll for a new generation.

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