Review Summary: Attention neo-garage groups: the position for Jesus-and-Mary-Chain-tribute-band has just been filled. Thanks for coming anyway.
The Strokes were among the first in the wave of retro-rock groups that engulfed the alternative scene in 2001. The barrage of gimmick-heavy acts that followed in their wake were all conveniently lumped into the garage-rock category, based on the New York punk scene that heavily influenced their sounds, as well as the annoying ‘The’ that preceded the group names (The Shins, The White Stripes, The Libertines, etc). With The Strokes monopolizing the Velvet Underground/Television soundalike category, and The Hives having the New York Dolls/Stooges category well covered, Danish upstarts The Raveonettes stepped up to occupy a risky niche: ripping off the Jesus and Mary Chain, a group that made its name by ripping off another band in the first place.
As obvious as their Velvet Underground/Beach Boys influences were, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s original brand of anti-pop was a critical factor in kick-starting the shoegazer movement, as well as the noise-rock antics of The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana. Much of Chain Gang of Love is modeled after the feedback-drenched sound of the JAMC’s 1985 debut, Psychocandy. And while William and Jim Reid’s music suggested that they had plenty of Buddy Holly and Ronettes records lying around their studios, The Raveonettes make that connection far more explicit, but with added influences ranging from 80s punk rockers The Cramps to 70s synth-punks Suicide.
Opening track ‘Remember’ is the first warning that this record is quite far removed from their 2002 EP Whip It On. While that record stuck with a fuzzy, modern monochrome sound reminiscent of Sonic Youth and The Cramps, Chain Gang of Love leans more towards the 50s side of things. ‘Remember’ is a fine example of this: sunny melodies and echo-laden boy-girl vocals buried under multiple layers of chiming guitars with reverb effects maxed out; a trick lifted straight from the pages of Psychocandy. Though it wasn’t released as one, it would work quite well as a single, just as Just Like Honey was an accessible introduction to the JAMC. The actual single ‘That Great Love Sound’ is nothing extraordinary, but it’s lyrics of innocently sexual longing and cheeky video make it a worthwhile cut nonetheless. ‘Noisy Summer’, tellingly replete with a full wall of white noise and heavily distorted guitars, introduces a recurring lyrical theme of sadomasochistic love with an adorable 1950s naivete; sort of what might happen when the lyrics of the Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs are layered over the melody of the Ronettes’ ‘Baby I love you’.
The problem with three strong opening tracks is that you expect a lot from the remaining ten, even if you don’t consider the fact that the record in question has been given the once-over by masters of the genre like My Bloody Valentine producer Alan Moulder and Blondie collaborator Richard Gotterher. That’s probably why Chain Gang of Love disappoints slightly as it nears the end of its runtime; though excellent tracks pop up consistently, they all exhibit a maddening lack of variety. Contributing to this is the fact that every song is played in B-Major, a step up from the limitations of Whip it On’s exclusively B-Minor sound, but restrictive nonetheless. ‘The Love Gang’ overcomes this with its deliberately minimal arrangements: the sweet, cooing vocals of bassist Sharin Foo and guitarist Sune Rose Wagner meshed together over a thick mechanic drone and heavy feedback.
‘Let’s Rave On’, a clear nod to Buddy Holly, suffers the opposite problem, though; it’s excessively simplistic lyrics and highly derivative melody are a stark indictment of the group’s lack of originality. It’s almost unfair, though, as they generally do an excellent job with what they have. ‘Little Animal’ shows what they’re capable of; boldly sexy lyrics sung over a vintage surf rock tune, with a poppy Everly Brothers-esque bassline, augmented with a distorted electric buzz. The title track, while very derivative sounding, is a fun, fast-paced trip back to the heyday of rockabilly surf. 'Heartbreak Stroll' is short and punchy, and its combination of crashing drums, infectious choruses and breakneck surf guitars make for an excellent second single.
Moments of variety, while few, are nothing short of outstanding. The touching ‘Love can Destroy Everything’ features powerful vocal distortion, Link Wray-esque guitars slowed down to a sharp, melancholic rhythm and excellent songwriting. The eerie ‘The Truth about Johnny’, with its near-whispered vocals and modest arrangements bring to mind Suicide’s keyboard-powered brand of anxious rock. The wistful ‘Untamed Girls’ sounds like My Bloody Valentine covering The Angels (or any generic 60s girl group), and is resplendent in its fuzzy, happy, blissed-out sound. It would have made an excellent closer for the album but the unremarkable ‘New York Was Great’ takes that spot.
Despite the kind words, it should be clear that the Raveonettes aren’t doing anything new. The lyrics and song titles repeatedly reference rockers of yore, and the drum beats are sometimes lifted straight out of Jesus and Mary Chain and Ronettes tracks. Despite all this, however, they’ve put together a tight collection of retro pop tracks that dabble in bebop and rockabilly without ever falling into embarrassing country territory. Chain Gang of Love is danceable, stylish and self-assured. It’s good enough to warrant overlooking the pretentious The Wild One- inspired cover artwork. A little more variety, especially with songs incorporating the slick style of Whip it On, and this would easily have been five star material.
(This review was originally published on Epinions (by me) on April 5, 2005).