Album: The Dandy Warhols, "This Machine" (The End Records)
The Dandy Warhols are a binary construct: one tends to either bop their head mindlessly to the band's typical froth of laid-back PDX neo-psychedelia-cum-miniature-krautrock or else ignore them entirely.
There's really nothing about their recording career -- now approaching two decades -- that's very much memorable, aside from impending honorariums for longevity. They have been the definition of a consistency that rankles simply because it takes so few chances with formula.
But now they are going to be different, singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor vows, and he promises that the band will thrill you on "This Machine," its first set of all-new material in more than four years, which is "stripped-down," "guitar-centric" and "woody" (these are actual promises from actual interviews). In future installments, watch the band discover new, exciting, cutting-edge rockinroll techniques like tempo changes and loud-soft-loud dynamics. Anything, frankly, would be more interesting than the dreary "...Earth to the Dandy Warhols...," which felt too much like the same song repeated a dozen times at various pitches and speeds, except sometimes one of them would yell and sometimes there was a guitar solo.
So how does "This Machine" stack up? It's not "woody," but it's departs from the group's canon on several significant levels. Gone -- or at least highly obscured -- is the band's usual stoner shuffle schtick. The bass-heavy opener, "Sad Vacation," throbs in the low end like a Flaming Lips tune, then surprises further with a sort of Dave Sitek-approved TV On The Radio swirly desert topping/chorus -- all it lacks is Tunde Adebimpe and an underlying understanding of funk.
"The Autumn Carnival" also smacks of something else; airy R.E.M.-style dynamics here, almost harkening back to "Reckoning" without the sense that anything could happen; it's a Dandy Warhols song, after all. "Enjoy Yourself," likewise, is essentially Iggy Pop circa 1980, when nobody was paying any attention to Iggy Pop. Then there's "Alternative Power to the People," 2:47 of instrumental Devo (first album). So many forebears in the forest where Taylor-Taylor lives: at times it's hard to suss where tribute leaves off and cop picks up.
But it's a step in the right direction, anyway. "Well They're Gone" is practically Gypsy punk without the punk; not Gogol Bordello but knocking on the same door, which is not a sound you would typically ascribe to these folks; at other times they sound almost goth, like when Taylor-Taylor dons his Peter Murphy mask on the creepyesque "Rest Your Head" (black eyeliner optional). A cover of "16 Tons" seems outside of the band's repertoire, but here it is. Admirably, the band muscles it in a Morphine direction rather than a Tom Waits one. It's a failed experiment, but it's still fun to see the band experiment.
Most of the time the tinkering and playfulness works. It isn't until the album's ninth track, "SETI vs The Wow! Signal," that you get the Trademarked Dandy Chorus, ("I never thought you'd be a junkie because heroin is so pas-SAY-ay-ayyy," et al), which is a long time for these guys to lay off that particular button. The song works, despite its incredibly stupid title, on many levels, not least of which is a newfound willingness to entertain complexity and drop reliance on trope, no matter how delicately dangled in front of them. It's hard to say what they were going for on the set's penultimate "Don't Shoot She Cried," however; it's just five minutes or so of ethereal-type guitar and synth noises, the answer to the question "What would it sound like to do drugs in Heaven?" Unfortunately, nobody was asking.
The album ends with "Slide," a somewhat morose throwback that summons up no obvious antecedents, aside from a general affinity with '80s synth-pop and post-Ziggy Bowie. That's right in the band's wheelhouse, and they do not fail to connect on the underhand softball toss. On the other hand, given the amount of playful exploration going on earlier, you can't help but feel a little disappointed that they retreat back to comfortable accommodations in the end, pretend jumpers feeling for a ledge they really weren't even close to at all, it turned out.