Friday, November 11, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: DIRTBOMB EXPLOSION

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 11, 2005

This is not your typical punk/noise/snot-rock/garage band.

I own two albums by The Dirtbombs — the new If You Don’t Already Have a Look and 2001’s Ultraglide in Black — and both of them have Stevie Wonder covers.

The group is from Detroit, just like The White Stripes, The Detroit Cobras and The Von Bondies -- though apparently this band cringes when people mention a “Detroit scene” or the “garage band movement.” (Check out their FAQ section on their Web site.)

I don’t care who you might try to lump them in with. The Dirtbombs play good old fashioned stripped-down fuzz-tone rock with a blast of raw punk power and strong nod to soul music.

That’s right, soul music. As in Stevie, Smokey, The Ohio Players and even Lou Rawls.

Led by singer/guitarist Mick Collins, who has played in a long line of Detroit bands for 25 years, The Dirtbombs have been rocking for a whole decade in relative obscurity with a lineup featuring two drummers and two bassists.

If You Don’t Already Have a Look is a two-disc set -- one of original songs, one of cover tunes.

The album consists of Dirtbomb singles going back to 1996, when Collins played off Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” to introduce a maniacal crank-damaged rockabilly car song called “High Octane Salvation.” With Collins shouting the refrain, “Fill it up with the power of God!” it was obvious that this band meant business.

Like The Monkees and The Archies, The Dirtbombs have their own theme song. “Theme From the Dirtbombs” is a minute and 15 seconds of crazed pounding energy. You might not be able to understand the lyrics (at least until you get to the point where Collins shouts, “Come on girl, get up! I think I love you!”

“Little Miss Chocolate Syrup” sounds like if Prince joined Mudhoney, while “All My Friends” takes the riff from “Proud Mary” to apply it to a melody that sounds like a long-lost Iggy Pop tune.

Collins gets lecherous on “Cedar Point ‘76,” goofy on “She Playde Me Like a Booger,“ depraved on “Pray for Pills,” spooky on “Infa-Red” and cocky on “Trainwreck.”

They pay tribute to The Angry Samoans’ “They Saved Hitler’s Cock” with “They Saved Einstein’s Brain” and to Gilligan Island’s Ginger with “Tina Louise” (allegedly one of four DB songs that mention Tori Spelling).

The covers disc is nothing but fun. Besides the Stevie song (an atomic-powered “Maybe Your Baby”), the band plays songs by the Ohio Players (“You Don’t Mean It”), Elliot Smith ( “Brand New Game,” which sounds like a cross between the Pixies and The Rolling Stones), Yoko Ono (“Kiss, Kiss, Kiss”), Flipper (“Ha Ha Ha”), The Bee Gees (“I Started a Joke” ) and Smokey Robinson (“I’ll Be in Trouble”)

The strangest cover has to be The Stones’ “No Expectations,” which incorporates the rhythms of “Sympathy for the Devil” and the fade-out chorus of “Hey Jude.” Apparently this was meant for some Stones tribute album. But as Collins says in the liner notes, “One day people will learn not to ask The Dirtbombs to do tributes.”

One of my favorite ones here is Lou Rawls’ “Natural Man.” Collins includes Rawls’ spoken introduction:

“You know, there was a time when, if someone told you to do somethin', you did it. Bam! Right on! No questions asked. It was "Yes, sir" or "Yes, ma’am". You never said no. But, you know, things are changing. It's a new day, baby. Folks want to take their own lives into their hands and make their own choices …”

Corny? Maybe. But I think The Dirtbombs have taken these words to heart.

Also Recommended

*Sliver: The Best of the Box by Nirvana. If you plunked down $40, $50 or $60 for With the Lights Out, last year’s box set of Nirvana rarities, this single-disc compilation will anger you and make you rue the day that Kurt Cobain and the boys ever sold out to the major-label corporate vampire. Nineteen of the 22 cuts all appear on Lights Out. However, there are three previously unreleased tracks on Sliver, just enough to tempt a Nirvana completist to break down and shell out full price for the new CD.

There ought to be a law …

However, for those who don’t have the box set, Sliver will be a sweet revelation.

It starts off with a lo-fi but loveable 1985 (!) version of “Spank Through” -- by an early Cobain band called Fecal Matter, Sliver is treasure chest of demos, outtakes and a few stray live numbers. There’s a party recording of a very young (1987!) Nirvana ripping through Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and an early rehearsal of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which suffers from tape distortion and actually isn’t really very good.

My favorite tracks here include the band demo of “Rape Me” -- one of two versions of that song included here. Cobain here seems to have captured the spirit of raw horror that underlies so much of their last studio album In Utero.
Then there‘s “Ain’t It a Shame,” an upbeat Leadbelly which shows that Cobans love of Mr. Ledbetter didn’t stop with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

But perhaps the most interesting number here is the title song. “Sliver” -- the story of a young boy who gets taken against his will to his grandparents’ hose -- always has been one of my favorite Nirvana tunes.

Part of the power of the song, at least in the more familiar versions, is that a listener is never sure exactly why the kid screams “Grandma take me home!” But on this home demo, recorded by Cobain with an acoustic guitar, there’s a verse in which Grandpa Joe accidentally burns the boy’s arm with a cigarette. By the time this song was released on vinyl in 1990, this verse had been dropped.

That scared little boy of “Sliver” would remain a major part of Cobain’s persona . It had to be something much deeper than a cigarette burn behind it.

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