When there’s a raw intensity, rock ‘n’ roll’s the best drug on this planet. It’s absolute shit, though, if it’s phony. Then there’s that soggy middle to it all — the tasteless waters where sound isn’t just safe but vague and oversold. Rock ‘n’ roll failed because too many either dove, or started out, in these balmy puddles. As The Village Voice‘s Chuck Eddy best wrote, “Nothing scares anybody anymore, nothing surprises anybody anymore, there’s no such thing as a real mindfuck because people’s minds have already been fucked with over and over and over again.” I’d argue this is true 60-70% of the time, but then there’s the occasional slam to the head. Like Ty Segall. Or Bradford Cox. And maybe, just maybe, London’s Palma Violets.
Towards the end of this year’s South by Southwest, the UK rockers set up shop at the breezy Club de Ville an hour past midnight. My feet were blistered, my eyes weary, and I pretty much wanted to do anything but watch another rock act. Then some strung-out Brit hit the stage, barked at the ample crowd, and tossed himself around like some psychopath on speed — Chili Jesson, who mumbled, “I think I might love this.” His on-stage brother, Sam Fryer, too, did the whole mumble and stumble thing, only he was a notch or two below the freak show button. What followed was an hour of indiscernible garage pub rock; a sweltering wax ball of The Replacements and Buzzcocks, fronted by Joe Strummer or an English Joey Ramone. It ended with broken instruments and a disassembled drum kit, all courtesy of Jesson.
The problem with their full-length debut, 180, is that none of that’s even hinted. Produced by Pulp’s Steve Mackey, the 11-track effort feels almost sterile by comparison. With the exception of the beer-drenched, rallying anthem “Best of Friends” or the ’80s indie gazing “Last of the Summer Wire”, too much strolls on by with a shine. It’s a loud record, but everything’s all there. It shakes, it rattles, it rolls, and that’s sort of a nagging issue. Where’s the bratty, spit slugging, shoulder bruising rock ‘n’ roll that they showcased on-stage? Where’s the psychopath? What about all the danger?
Instead, it’s catchy garage pop and organ lessons by Pete Mayhew via Ray Manzarek. “Rattlesnake Highway” starts crunchy, but winds up on the beach. “All the Garden Birds” or “Tom the Drum” feel stripped off 45s your parents once spun. “Chicken Dippers” gets close to their primal instincts, but never tears off the concrete. Even closing track “14”, which they used to send off the crowd at Club de Ville, lacks the spontaneity of its live counterpart — a safer Velvet Underground, perhaps? Again, these aren’t weak songs in the slightest, they just feel toned down, restrained, or just waiting to explode.
Had they been tracked with the gritty ethos akin to Copenhagen’s Lower, New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus, or Brooklyn’s The Men, then, perhaps, one might have been able to walk out of the venue with some of the band’s pummeling intensity. To their credit, however, 180 does include this year’s strongest anthem (“Best of Friends”) with one hell of a timeless hook (“I wanna be your best friend / I don’t want you to be my girl”) and that’s just enough of a reminder, or a teaser, of what this band really is and what they can be when they’re set loose. And when that happens, hold on to your butts.
Essential Tracks: “Best of Friends”, “Last of the Summer Wire”