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Featured Artist: New York Dolls

New York Dolls promo pic
Photo courtesy John Scarpati

“Mick Jagger stole everything from David Johansen!”

Morrissey recently exclaimed this with a fervor that somehow made his chronologically impossible claims seem plausible. Watching footage of the ‘Dolls onstage two years ago at the behest of one of their biggest fans (who was curating the prestigious Meltdown Festival in London) one realized just how vast – and heretofore unsung – their influence truly was.

Everyone knows the famous logo: chrome lipstick, scrawling that name across an unseen mirror, but it’s more than the great brand. It’s not about the androgyny either. Skinny boys were wearing make up long before them. Little Richard. Elvis. It’s not even about the music, as the Dolls themselves were always quick to credit 50’s R&B numbers or early 60’s girl group productions as their own influences.

Really, what makes the Dolls so eternal is the attitude – it got into rock’s water supply and never left. Kiss, Aerosmith, The Ramones, Blondie, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses, Hanoi Rocks, The Strokes, The Libertines and just about any gang of strutting rockers who are convinced that their band could take your band and possibly your whole town in a pretty for pretty, ugly for ugly throwdown. The Dolls, and their disciples win, not just with brawn but with what guitarist Sylvain Sylvain calls “plenty of intellect and plenty of sex.”

The New York Dolls are, simply, the Beatles of attitude. Thirty five years into their existence (thirty one since they disbanded down in Florida in a haze of smack withdrawal and managerial anarchy), with three men down, they can still take your band, pretty for pretty, ugly for ugly, onstage, and now, with the long (long) awaited follow up to 1974’s awesome Too Much, Too Soon, on CD too.

“You know how England is,” David Johansen quips in his Staten Island drawl, thick as South Ferry sludge, “We made a big noise over there, and we were having so much fun, we decided to keep going.” “The phone didn’t stop ringing,” Sylvain adds, “The kids wanted this. Kids of all ages.” An album’s worth of brand new New York Dolls compositions, as unlikely as it may have seemed in 2003, was a foregone conclusion after wildly successful festival and live dates that spanned the past two years. They were a reunion when they re-started. Now, with replacement members feeling comfortable stepping into the stack heels of departed legends like Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, and most recently Arthur “Killer” Kane, they’re a gang once more. “It won’t be very long that we’ll be together longer than the original band was,” Johansen laughs.

And so we have official studio release #3, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, where the New York Dolls’ hallmarks: perfectly mean riffs, deceptively sweet choruses and miles of that infamous attitude meet the 21st Century. What’s the same? “I think it’s still an up kind of thing,” Johansen says describing that quality that makes the Dolls, whatever, whomever and whenever, unmistakably “the Dolls.” “It’s got a non-defeatist philosophy and attitude. It says We can do anything.”

What’s different? Well, listen to a track like the harmonica driven mid-tempo ballad “I Ain’t Got Nothing,” and it’s clear that you’re also dealing with real survivors. “We are older,” Sylvain acknowledges. “But we share the same spirit as when we were fucking 18.” They wear it well too. The world-weariness isn’t depressive, but rather philosophical – glamorous even. Think mid-period Sinatra (if he’d hailed from the Bronx and not Hoboken) or Leonard Cohen (if he were less Canadian). “It’s a statement of where we’re at in life,” Johansen says, “Life gets better as it goes along and you’re more aware of the totality of the thing. When you’re a kid, you can – at least I could – block out the not so happy happy, party party aspects of it. Do I feel like a survivor? Yeah.”

The New York Dolls don’t stare into their whiskey glasses too long. The up-tempo, Motown-flavored single “Dance Like A Monkey” would likely inspire heated debate on intelligent design vs. evolution if its tribal rhythm didn’t unite believers and pagans out on the dance floor. It should quickly enter the pantheon of great simian songs in rock history. Tracks like “Gimme Love and Turn On the Light,” all blues and garage rock horniness serve to remind (if anyone’s forgotten) the “sex” that is brought to the fore, nudging the “intellect” back a bit. Iggy Pop’s backing vocals punctuate the statement. “There’s an attitude we have towards rock n’ roll that’s kind of fierce,” Johansen explains, “There’s something in this band where we really want to swing and swing hard.”

Radio never really ‘got’ the ‘Dolls in their first time ’round, and although they were made for MTV, their own timing was off with that phenomenon. Their first two records are in every cool kid’s collection today (as they must be) and from “Lonely Planet Boy” off the first record to Too Much Too Soon’s “Human Being” (not to mention Johnny Thunders’ indelible “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” which the Dolls still play live), the guys always had a way with a timeless pop melody. One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This continues this tradition. “Take A Good Look At My Good Looks,” is perfectly realized retro-romantic pop. “Our producer heard it and said, ‘Syl you still have one foot in the Brill Building’,” Sylvain laughs.

“Dancing on the Lip of A Volcano,” featuring backing vocals from Michael Stipe and a shimmering hook, is easily as catchy as any new pop written by Swedes and not recorded by rock legends. “We thought, “Michael Stipe would be great on this,” Sylvain explains. “And so we called him. I live in Georgia and met him at a Patti Smith show. He said to me that he had seen David and I perform and that I handed him a bottle of Perrier. We heard his voice on the track and it was like ‘man this belonged on there all the time.” Stipe is one of only a few guests, whose impact on the tracks are subtle. “We got good stuff,” Johansen says, “We’re a good band. We can do what we gotta do for better or for worse. I didn’t feel like we need this, or we need that.”

Although recorded, mostly live, with producer Jack Douglas (who was an engineer on their self-titled debut, and produced classic albums for Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and John Lennon), this is a cleaner sounding ‘Dolls. The rawness is there in the aforementioned attitude, but nobody is pretending Nixon is still in office either. “You can never be amateurish again,” Johansen explains, “Those two Dolls albums are like folk art. Urban folk art. Alan Lomax could have made them. They captured some Grandma Moses thing. We were so young and new at playing. When I was considering how to go about writing, I was saying, as you go through life and get more skilled at your craft, you can never go back.”

And so we move forward. “This is phase two,” Johansen says. “It’s a new band. A whole new thing.” Purist fans may scoff that it’s not the Dolls without Johnny, Jerry and Arthur, but both Johansen and Sylvain insist that bassist Sammi Yaffa, guitarist Steve Conte, keyboardist Brian Koonin and drummer Brian Delaney are indeed Dolls now. “We didn’t set out to replace anyone,” Sylvain reminds us. We’re talking about the deceased here, not the dismissed, after all. “They’re great guys,” Johansen assures those who may be in doubt, “They’re part of every aspect of everything. That’s what being in a band is all about. I’ve got them all psychoanalyzed. Very interesting subjects.”

Is the world really ready for The New York Dolls 2006? “I don’t care if this record is a hit,” Sylvain assures, “Just as long as every man, woman and child buys it.”

 

The Zutons – Tired of Hanging Around

Tired of Hanging Around CD cover

The Zutons’ import release Tired Of Hanging Around is equally as diverse as their 2004 release Who Killed The Zutons. It has that same wildly assorted Zuton musical fingerprint. Staying true to themselves, the music is still as tight as ever, complete with complex orchestrations, do-wap style backup vocals and a constant blend of genres.

Vocalist David McCabe continually sounds like he’s pushing his voice to the limit, perhaps a personal trademark. While he’s in no way screaming, there is something uniquely odd and distinctive about his voice; it almost sounds as if McCabe is working so hard that his voice might give out on him at any moment.

Tired Of Hanging Around touches deeper, darker places that the previous album. While the lyrics occasionally sound scary and malicious, taken in context, the entire album conveys a sense of emotional pain and despair. This sensibility is punctuated by the tracks “How Does It Feel” and “Why Won’t You Give Me Your Love.”

Lyrically, “How Does It Feel” deals with self-loathing and personal disappointment, while musically the track is full of tension, which just serves to compound the emotional aspect of the song.

“Why Won’t You Give Me Your Love” adds a sense of rejection to the mix, touching on the darker side with lyrics like “I’ll keep you locked downstairs” and “I’ll wait until the sun comes up and poke and prod you more.”

Despite the emotional anguish conveyed on the album, it is truly a masterpiece to which most people can relate. Strangely enough, the music normally plays counterpoint to the lyrics, almost betraying the pain and emotion and radiating an upbeat, yet melancholy, feeling.

While technically an import, The Zutons’ Tired Of Hanging Around should be readily accessible to anyone seeking a change of pace. Although it’s truthful and emotional open, it’s far from depressing and definitely worth checking out.

Tired Of Hanging Around

Rating by Jeffrey Rooks: 4.5 stars
****1/2

Snow Patrol – Eyes Open

Eyes Open CD cover

Snow Patrol’s Eyes Open may initially appear to lack the standout radio hits of its predecessor, 2004’s Final Straw. However, the complexity of the tracks on Eyes Open hide their true nature until you find yourself flying down the freeway playing the drums on the steering wheel and yelling the choruses out the window.

Staying true to their gloomy, yet upbeat sound, Eyes Open is much more refined and undoubtedly shows the growth and maturity of the band, offering a wider array of soundscapes, moods and tones. Flooding with emotion, as if the dam gave way, Snow Patrol will likely continue their ascension to the top of the charts with this collection.

“Hands Open,” the first single, has been all over the airwaves with its driving rhythm guitar and infectiously easy to sing chorus. That said, the true gem on the disc is “You’re All I Have.”

Kicking off the album, “You’re All I Have” has to be one of the hardest rocking and obscured love songs ever written. Skipping past all of the typical mushy love song crap, vocalist Gary Lightbody simply sings, “It’s so clear now that you are all I have.” While it might not be glaringly obvious, something about those ten words seem to be even more powerful than the typical, and overused, “love you until the end of time” junk.

Snow Patrol asserts their musical maturity on Eyes Open by wandering into stranger territories. From the silky keys and syncopated beats of “Shut Your Eyes” to the ambient airiness of “Finish Line” to the epic grandeur of “Set The Fire To The Third Bar,” which features Martha Wainwright on guest vocals, Snow Patrol knows how to take hold of emotions and write amazing songs full of feeling, not just notes and words.

Fans of Snow Patrol’s Final Straw with find Eyes Open the perfect extension, while those looking for something more than the repetitive and monotonous sound of Coldplay and Interpol will find it refreshing and energetic.

 

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