2011: Garage Rock Grows Up

Mike McGonigal

By Mike McGonigal

on 12.21.11 in Spotlights

Four years ago, I flew from Portland to New York to see my favorite band, New Zealand’s garage-pop trio the Clean, play three shows at a glorious pit called Cake Shop. The openers were Crystal Stilts, a Brooklyn group with no records out whose moody and noisy music pushed all the right buttons. I quickly befriended the group, especially guitarist JB Townsend and his then-girlfriend Frankie Rose, whose own band Vivian Girls were soon-to-be favorites. They knew more than I did about some of the touchstones for their own sound, from ’60s freak-beat rock ‘n’ roll to decadent ’80s Scottish anorak-pop. JB and Frankie graciously turned me on to a new wave of fuzzy, melodic garage-rock bands.

This new school was self-conscious, arty and far more influenced by post-punk than garage revival heroes like the White Stripes, Hives and Dirtbombs. But it was also a lot less serious, and at least as fun. More than anything, this new garage was just so wonderfully loud and vibrant. As an almost-40-year-old, it felt so great to fall in love with new music again, to scrounge around for the newest blown-out-sounding releases by bands like Nice Face, Eat Skull, Tyvek, and the Jacuzzi Boys, on labels such as Columbus Discount, Art Fag, HoZac and Skulltones.

What we commonly call garage is a sound that seems to have existed in America forever – or at least since the mid ’60s, anyway. Sometimes the best hybrids arrive when people try to play a music that’s foreign to them; they don’t quite get it right but the result is something else. This happened with the British rock groups in the early ’60s who tried to play electric blues and early rock and roll, but they didn’t have the gritty, growling edge of a Howlin’ Wolf or the great gospel shouts of a Little Richard. What they did have was a keen melodic sense and good white boy looks to ensure that the music was fun and safe enough for the world to fall in love with it.

The Beatles sold American rock ‘n’ roll back to America’s teenagers, making it cool to throw on pointy boots, call yourselves The (Somethings), and make loud music at a teen dance. Only so many of these groups also got it wrong. They played the same chords as the British bands, but their own music was often harder, weirder and wilder. A group like the Count Five didn’t have a singer as good looking as Mick Jagger, a bassist as nimble as Paul McCartney, a lyricist as talented as Ray Davies, a lead guitarist as shredding as Jimmy Page. But they did have a raw, primal intensity, plus a fuzzbox to drive that lead guitar riff into distortion. In so doing, they created a bridge not only back to the original rockers, but also to neglected American artists like Link Wray and the Sonics.

Garage rock paved the way for psychedelia and ’70s metal, but it never went away. After being collected and celebrated in Lenny Kaye‘s 1972 Nuggets compilation, the garage canon was further codified with the Pebbles and Beyond the Grave series in the ’80s. It has become easier to discover the music the more it’s receded into the past. Garage not only served as a template for punk, it continues to inspire with ever new discoveries. Thanks to reissues, today we’re all aware of the genius of the Monks – the crazed organ-punk outfit comprised of Vietnam vets stationed in Germany – and the deliriously intense Peruvian garage-punk band Los Saicos, whose singer sounds like he chugged gasoline before every verse and set his vocal cords on fire while he sang.

Two years ago, I wrote and co-produced a VICE documentary (funded by the car company Scion) on the new garage scene. We captured it just as it was imploding, which turns out to be a great time to make a documentary, as the narrative arcs are built in. MTV had already filmed a segment at a house party in Portland, Oregon. The Black Lips had taken to fisticuffs in a bar with the fellow from Wavves. Money had already come in and poisoned things. Vivian Girls, Blank Dogs and Eat Skull vinyl was selling for 20 times their original cost. And the word on the street was that artists like Jay Reatard, Smith Westerns and Wavves had all been paid sizable advances by their record labels.

Since that time, the money has largely gone away. Labels have drifted towards chillwave and new electro-pop, while a number of those original garage rockers called it quits. The majority of the groups who stuck around have moved away from lo-fi gimmickry and two-minute songs toward further experimentation and, in some cases, outright sophistication. This year, two Southern bands – the Black Lips and Jacuzzi Boys – showed how to handle glossier production without sounding like sell-outs. The Black Lips hooked up with hit-maker Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Duran Duran) on Arabia Mountain, but never gave up their tongue-in-cheek power. Their goofy anthems are still goofy anthems, and despite the newfound sonic prettiness, they remained messy, crazy and perpetually in-the-red. And on Glazin’, Jacuzzi Boys present a bigger, glammier version of their scuzz-garage sound. Singer Gabriel Alcala pushes his vocals into a higher register throughout the record, which was the group’s first experience in a proper studio, and as he hits those Perry Farrell highs, the group sounds ready for the bigger clubs, if not the mini-arenas.

It’s not always a matter of beefing up one’s sound in a larger studio to achieve a more “adult” sound or refined sensibility. Another way to progress is to just stand still and burrow in deeper.
Last year, Timmy Vulgar released an expansive solo album on Sacred Bones and won a “Detroit Guggenheim” from the prestigious Kresge Arts Foundation. This year, his band Human Eye released They Came From the Sky, a brain-melter of an album full of songs in strange time signatures and topped with lyrics about space aliens. No one who knows Vulgar in Detroit was surprised he won that grant, by the way. One visit to the Motor City will result in dozens of Timmy stories.

In fact, one of the most rewarding things about the garage subculture is that it affords the opportunity to watch musicians who feel like they’re a part of something, and who are playing for one another at least as much as they are to get laid. San Francisco-based singer-guitarist John Dwyer and his band thee Oh Sees are almost universally loved; they released two albums this year, the better of which, Carrion Crawler/ the Dream, was something of a beakthrough, matching the careening, tribal vibe of their live shows. Finally! Often setting up on the floor of a venue with their own P.A. in tow, John Dwyer and co. attack a set at a fervor pace with crazed kids jumping all around and onto the top of the band in a circle, like it’s a self-recycling punk performance – a musical version of Howl’s Moving Castle.

But the paths toward maturation are varied, and go well beyond bigger budgets and shinier production. Maturity happens to most of us over time – usually in unwanted fits and starts, and usually as a result of life experiences, pleasant and otherwise. To that end, perhaps no act affiliated with the garage scene has “grown up” quite as much as the Dum Dum Girls, whose first recordings were fully-distorted, quick little ditties. They had a haunting power, all of them fully written, sung and played by Kristin Gundred, aka Dee Dee Penny. She managed to not only successfully transform her home demos into a full band with a unified look, but when it came time to record her first album, she chose to work with Richard Gottehrer, who produced the ’60s girl-group triumph “My Boyfriend’s Back.” They reteamed for this year’s Only In Dreams (with Sune Rose Wagner from the Raveonettes) and the songs and her voice are as assured as the best work by Chrissie Hynde. It’s also a heavy downer.

Over the course of the record’s 10 songs, Penny writes from the center of a sadness loop. Songs like “In My Head” and “Bedroom Eyes” employ lyrical repetition – “Empty bed, empty bed” in the former, “I need your bedroom eyes” in the latter – to approximate the maddening cycle of depression and longing (in this case, Penny’s missing her new husband, Brandon Welchez of the Crocodiles). By grounding familiar lyrical notions in painful real-life circumstances, Penny turns traditional girl group tropes on their ear, transforming simple romantic plaints into something deeper, starker and more adult.

She wades bravely into darker water in the record’s second half. While Penny was writing and recording Dreams, her mother was dying from brain cancer, and at the record’s midway point, she shifts her focus from heartache to the horror of mortality with a clarity that’s almost ruthless. “I never had imagined death/ beyond a vague and cold last breath,” she sings in “Caught in One,” continuing “But now I see his many forms/ The way he builds up like a storm/ In all the pain and all the sighs/ That well up in my mother’s eyes.” It’s the plainspokenness that makes the songs so arresting: “Hold Your Hand,” three words employed in so many garage rock songs they seem at first almost laughably pedestrian, puts Dee Dee at her mother’s bedside, where she repeats, “And you’d do anything to bring her back/ you’d do anything to bring her back” before coming to the wrenching – and painfully grown-up – conclusion, “But there’s nothing I can do except hold your hand/ ’til the very end.”

In a small way, the Dum Dum Girls record feels huge. It’s not as if garage rock has always been solely about girls and cars, and sex with girls in cars (in the mid ’60s, the Monks decried the war in Vietnam, while in the late 1980s, the Original Sins sang about heavy existential stuff.) And even though Dreams doesn’t exactly redefine garage-rock, it is at least a handy template for change. The Dum Dums themselves have accomplished impressive sonic and stylistic developments over just a few years. Like all of this year’s best garage records, it’s pointing the way forward while glancing over its shoulder.