Monday, February 20, 2012

Record review: Rambos - 'Rock and Roll Monsters'

By Gene Wagendorf III 

It's not often that I find myself comparing a band to a genre of comics, but such was the case last Friday night. I was telling a friend about the upcoming record release show for Rambos' debut album, Rock and Roll Monsters (Saturday, February 25th at the Empty Bottle), and was asked the obligatory question: What do they sound like? I talk about music enough to mostly loathe comparing one band to another (note: the more inebriated I get the more fun it is to play "Band X ripped off Band Y" and see how many moves it takes to get back to The Beatles) and so I decided to go another route and asked Said Friend if they'd ever read any horror comics from the '60s or '70s. The answer, of course, was no, but the comparison was appropriate never the less. Rambos draw off a couple of musical styles in creating their sound, but few things nail down what exactly their record sounds like as precisely as looking at an old issue of Vampirella.

A five-piece garage rock band, Rambos have been one of my favorite Chicago acts to see live the for the last year or so (evidence here and here) and it goes without saying that I was psyched to have their album pop up in my inbox. The first track, "Terrorize," is the band's rabble-rousing call-to-arms, a percussion-led romp that serves as the Benny Hill theme of giddy destruction. In it, singer Jeremy David Miller confesses: We've got a hunger,/ look in our eyes/ We've got an evil muse that tells us to terrorize. "Rock and Roll" shrugs the playfulness of the first song and goes for a more sonically sinister approach: steam engine guitars with midnight washes backdrop cavernous tandem vocals, recklessly chugging forward. The destination feels damply religious, distortion swirling at the moment of a sacrifice made to the rock gods. Nothing that hasn't been done before, but Rambos' combination of adept timing and haunting sincerity make the song, and the album as a whole, disturbingly engaging.

The twisted preacher leading this sermon is the aforementioned Miller, who along with vocalist Julie Meckler, whips up a batch of vocal harmonies that play well over the album's High Noon guitar dribbles and air raid siren leads. On "Human Monster" the two take the listener through a monster's horrific realization of self. Another band could easily have given this song Muppet-style kitsch, but Miller's hollow rock-a-billy and Meckler's sympathetic sparrow turn away from The Count and move closer to a creature driven mad by its own lack of humanity. Think Alan Moore's Swamp Thing set to lush, twinkling guitars and down-hill drumming.

Now, I know none of this sound like much fun, but like with old issues of Tales from the Crypt, there's plenty of tongue-in-cheek silliness to keep the album afloat. "Chuck Taylors," the group's dance rock homage to Converse All-Stars, grinds on bluesy furrow crunched out by JJ Evans and Ryan Anderson. The song dips and swings at all the right moments, making it impossible not to dance, let alone to avoid singing along to easy lyrics like Everybody wears Chuck Taylors/ Everybody wears Chuck Taylors/ Without your Chucks/ Your feet are fucked.

"USA" is a large, plodding song that feels closer to fifteen minutes than three and a half. With brash guitar work and stomping percussion, it's an ideal protest chant, though my lack of ability to determine the level of irony at work makes it impossible to apply a cause. Patriotism being such a faux-pax in most non-mainstream rock and roll, especially in the demographic that Rambos hail from, combined with their goofiness, make it likely that some jest is being made here. However, with the lack of any wink-wink lyrics and the sincere delivery I've previously mentioned, I can't take the song as satire either. It does succeed as an aural adrenaline boost, so co-opt as necessary. Less oblique is "Radio," a love song dedicated to that delightful antique rendered irrelevant by iPods and, shudder, Pandora. Musically restrained, aside from a lasery guitar lick, it's a nice counterpoint to "Hiawatha," which feels less tight despite its structure, moving more like a series of sutured parts that briefly falls into an open mic jam. Not necessarily spectacular, it unfolds like a lengthy anecdote that hits a solid punchline.

On "Vampire," a swooning ballad for blood-suckers, the band combines all the elements musically and stylistically that make them so damn fun. When I pulled the knife from your eye/ You started to bleed, not to my surprise/ But when you knelt down and drank it/ I never knew, never expected you to/ To be a vampire sounds like a line from shitty Twilight fan-fiction, or, well, maybe just straight from Twilight, but the lamented melt of Meckler and Miller provides a strange solemnity and sweetness. Before you get all weepy, the duo plays out The V Word with a comic whiny-ness that dares the listener not to laugh. Beside those vocals, Evans and Anderson craft warm and muted tones with a satisfyingly frothy linger. Drummer Ian Tsan is appropriately restrained here, as on much of the record, where he's in charge of reigning in jammier moments and adding subtle flourishes.

Of Chicago, Miller once told me, "[It} makes you cynical. You either get mad or get clever. I put out only what I take in." It's clear from listening to Rock and Roll Monsters that Rambos have soaked in a bit of madness but, luckily for the Chicago Police Department, they've channeled that horror into an album full of raunchy guitars and solid grooves. It's a damn solid start to what's hopefully a long run. A lesser group might fall victim to shtick in this territory, but I have little doubt that Rambos will continue to cleverly and madly waltz that line going forward. In a musical landscape so populated with serious music and high "artistic" agenda, it'll be nice to have some monsters around fucking things up for everyone.

'Rock and Roll Monsters' is out on March 6th digitally on Grape Juice Records, with the possibility of CDs being available at the record release show, Saturday, February 25th at The Empty Bottle. The show is free with an rsvp to with 'Rambos' in the subject. You can check out a few tracks from the album below. See you there.

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