1. singer of Richmond, VA -based heavy metal four-time Grammy losers lamb of god. 2. 42-year-old skateboarding, fly fishing, and bullwhipping enthusiast. 3. amateur photographer currently writing his first photo-essay book. 4. author of currently untitled memoir to be published by Da Capo/Perseus (U.S.) and Random House (everywhere else), spring 2014. 5. proud husband, son, grandson, and brother. 6. fairly righteous dude.
Before the days of Pro Tools and iPods and half-decent stock stereos in every car sold, musicians used to give new mixes of their tunes what we called “the boom box” or “car” test. This entailed transferring the music onto a cassette tape, slapping it into the crappiest thrift-store boom box possible, or even better, jumping in the beat-up car of whichever band member had scraped up enough money bartending or swinging a hammer to buy one, kicking the 7-11 coffee cups and beer cans out of the way, and going for a ride.
Almost everything sounds great cranking through Genelec active pro monitors and a bowel-rumbling subwoofer, but how will your genius translate through the tinny, blown-out, crud-encrusted speakers of a used 1992 Subaru SVX (first car I ever owned —named it “the Wedge,” cost me a whopping 100 bones)? Most of the time, you quickly and sadly realize that you have not, in fact, recorded the new Master of Puppets after all.
In this digital Age the car test has lost most of its relevance, but I still process new tunes best in a moving vehicle. I think this is because the car is where I first truly began to listen to music with a careful, critical ear. For me, the car cassette test has become the carbon footprint test — how many gallons of “liberated” Kuwaiti oil will burn when I listen to a new record while rolling around my beloved Richmond, Virginia? While my 2007 Toyota (used, thank you very much) gets much better gas mileage than “the Wedge” ever did, while its leaking engine doesn’t require a quart of 10W40 every other day to prevent total seizure, and while I certainly will not irresponsibly abandon it around the corner from Ye Olde Punk Haus (RIP Dirtbag Manor) when it finally leaks its last drop, my truck does widen the hole in the ozone layer a bit whenever Gojira puts out a new album.
Crime and the City Solution was formed Down Under in 1977 by Simon Bonney, the only constant member of a band that has existed in various forms in Sydney, Melbourne, London, Berlin, and (currently) Detroit. Over the course of 35 years Bonney has enlisted a large roster of top-notch musicians to actualize his vision, including members of the Birthday Party/Bad Seeds, Einstürzende Neubauten, 16 Horsepower, Prong, Dirty Three, These Immortal Souls, Die Haut, Swans — the list is huge and bewildering to me in its envy-inducing pedigree. How the hell can one man rope so many great players into doing his musical bidding?
The answer, of course, is to write great tunes. It’s either that or you are sooooooo cool that legends like the late great Rowland S. Howard want to be part of your band and help write those tunes. However he pulled it off, Bonney has put out some high quality audio product over the years, so it was with a good deal of excitement (and not a small amount of trepidation) that I decided to get in the truck and listen to American Twilight.
Excitement: because Crime and the City Solution has put out some of the finest music that the critics and genre purist snots have ever shaded under the “post-punk” umbrella. Aside from the best band to ever slither out of Australia’s sunburned landscape (the Birthday Party, of course — and anyone who disagrees with me will be force-fed Vegemite and kangaroo poop sandwiches), Crime and the City Solution are the epitome of the bizarre, caustic, and uniquely Australian rock band born of the convergence of geographic isolation, whinge-less dark humor, and the willingness to travel to depressing post-industrial cities in order to make kick-ass records.
Trepidation: because it’s been 22 years since Bonney put out a record under the Crime moniker. His disparate line-ups worked well up until 1990’s Paradise Discotheque, after which he disbanded Crime and the City Solution, started hanging out in the US of A, and released a few solo records of… Aussiemericana? I freely admit that as a native of the South, I’m perhaps a wee bit provincial in my attitudes concerning “country music.” I also suppose that since Nashville is unable to produce anything other than saccharine top 40 hits disguised as “country” under a cheap paint job of modern day NASCAR redneck-chic style aesthetics, an Australian globe rover might as well give ‘er a whirl. Regrettably Bonney’s solo stuff just didn’t cut the mustard greens for me, so I’ll stick to Hank and Lefty Frizzell.
I dunno, man — 22 years is a long time. This could be a short truck ride, as I won’t tolerate an obviously weak effort for more than a few blocks. Plus this is my first stab at being a “rock critic,” a profession that normally makes me think of stabbing in an entirely different way.
To be quite honest, I’m nervous about this whole thing. Because I’m a fan, I want to like this record before I ever hear it, I don’t want to have to write a bad review (but I will), I hope it doesn’t suck because I won’t be able stop myself from ripping it apart, I hope I don’t like it too much because then I might come across as an effete sycophant, I hope a review I write never gets described as “gushing” — man that would really chap my ass — oh God, why did I agree to do this, I hate critics, I am so screwed either way, what am I doing reviewing records, I should have stuck to screaming, which is about the only thing I know how to do well, what if Bonney reads this and calls Nick Cave who somehow has me banned from Australia because he probably has that kinda clout, even worse he could have me killed by some giant sheep farmer who knifes me while saying “Sorry ’bout yer shit review, mate,” aren’t they all the descendants of criminals Down Under anyways, damn I really liked touring there, I’ll never taste fresh Tim-Tams or hold a penguin again…
Rolling away from the crib, the first track “Goddess” kicks in, and I am immediately relieved. I like it, I honestly do. Rolling toms kick into a bit of psychedelic guitars and some Summer of Love tambourine work as Bonney sings about the importance of “eternal woman.” We’re off to a good start.
Cruising toward my old neighborhood, the formerly working-class enclave of Oregon Hill (now full of hipsters, college students, and slightly edgy yuppie home owners), “My Love Takes Me There” comes on with a blast of Fun House-era Stooges fuzzed-out guitars, more pre-punk than post. These almost immediately give way to some muted horns and maracas, giving the song a relaxing calypso-on-Quaaludes sort of vibe. Two songs in and I’m pretty darn pleased so far.
I’m almost at Fine Foods Market, and that’s a good thing because: a) I’m out of cigarettes, and b) the third track “Riven Man” has brought my enjoyment of this record to a screeching halt. Well, not exactly screeching — more like a droning, annoying, self-indulgent-I’ll stop-but-only-when-I’m-good-and-ready type of halt. I am a big fan of repetitive riffs and lyrics, as long as they are enjoyable repetitive riffs and lyrics. These are neither — sounds like an endless half-realized boogie rock tune. I don’t like to feel like I have to endure a song, particularly not this song, when I could be listening to ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres instead. I suppose all of this is subjective anyway, but this diddy bums me out. Plus, is it proper to say in a song “My fellow Americans” when you are from about as far away from America as possible? I would never say “My fellow Frenchmen” or “As a Chinese man,” now would I? I need a cigarette. The other two minutes of this song can wait.
Smoking furiously, I head across the Lee Bridge towards Southside as “Riven Man” finishes (and never does change or get any better). I turn onto scenic Riverside Drive and things start looking back up as “Domina” comes on. This is a slow, almost funeral-dirge tune, with some beautiful choral vocals and strings filling it out. I begin to notice what I perceive to be a bit of a political thread running through Bonney’s relationship-laden lyrics. He seems to be equating freedom with the female ideal. Dude must have one hell of a wife. (Further research reveals she’s in the band — woman plays a mean fiddle).
I decide to head back across the river and take the Nickel Bridge (which, infuriatingly, costs 35 cents), “The Colonel” blasting into the air over the James River as I roll down the window and enjoy the spring air. The pace doesn’t pick up any — in fact it stays almost the same as “Domina” — but this song is the first time I notice the band sounding more like its earlier post-punk days: sparser, jangling guitars and howling vocals. The lyrics are rather obtuse, and to be honest I don’t have the foggiest of what Bonney is caterwauling about when he yells “Colonel don’t call anymore!” over and over, but it doesn’t matter — it sounds good, and more importantly, I believe him.
My foul, “Riven Man”-induced mood, is now completely lifted by “Beyond Good and Evil.” There’s what sounds like a lap steel, nice clean guitars, and Bonney’s baritone is righteously mellow harmonizing with female vocals. Plus any song that starts with the purely genius line “I looked into your damn crossed eyes” has got to turn out well. A friend of mine had a cat named Dimluck with crossed eyes. Dumbest cat I ever met — sweet, but dumb as a sack of rusty hammers. If the rest of Bonney’s country stuff sounded like this, I would have granted him honorary Southerner status.
The sun is going down as I drive down the main drag, Broad Street, and fittingly the title track comes on. “American Twilight” is another repetitive rocker, but luckily the riff is tons better than “Riven Man.” This is a Detroit Rock City jam for sure, with big hooks, big choruses, and a constant thumping bass line. It reminds me a little at times of MC5, even kicking off with a super-positive “fight the man!” sort of spoken word intro. My only beef with this tune is the lead vocal effect. Either the producer or Bonney decided to layer almost every lead vocal with that super annoying plug-in that makes everything sound like it’s coming out of a budget-megaphone or the singer is calling from the bottom of a pay toilet in a jail in a crappy part of Barcelona. Bad production decision, but not bad enough to be a deal-breaker.
Rolling along Broad Street, past the idiotic city-led revitalization efforts to stop urban decay which fail right in the face of the successful private business owner attempts, the album winds to a close with “Streets of West Memphis,” an introspective, slow tune. It’s a beautiful song, even though Bonney gets a little ham-handed with his lyrical political commentary. But hey — you’re reading a review by a man who has put more than one really trite political lyric on wax, and Bonney does redeem himself with the line “Now I know lost paradise on the streets of Memphis,” which I take as a nod to the horrific ordeal endured by Damien Echols and the rest of the West Memphis Three. The song builds to a cacophonous ending with the repeating line “Here comes the rain,” and amazingly, it starts to rain right here in Richmond, VA.
I turn the truck around and head home.
American Twilight is a damn good record — a tasty treat for my ears, although that makes it fairly bad for the environment. Not Exxon Valdez bad, but bad enough to make me reconsider my favored manner of music consumption. At the very least, a koala or two has lost its tree.
So I recommend buying it, and in fact I will do so tomorrow, even though my vaunted new status in the biz as a rock critic has afforded me a free digital copy. But I like to support the artist, and I like to hold a record in my hands, and I like to pretend that the music industry is not imploding. Maybe my foolish, anachronistic ways will one day cause me to fall into a pit of cynicism and despair.
Until then, the weather is getting nicer, so in the meantime I think I’ll clean the carbs on my moped, go to the thrift store, buy a boom box, strap it on the Puch, and save some fossil fuels the next time I write a review.