First, two belated observations about metropolitan Detroit’s resilient so-called “garage rock” scene, from whence sprung such world-beaters as the White Stripes: 1) It started out super kitschy and cheesy, so much so that, when I lived there in the mid-’80s, I remember exactly zero members of bands I spent time with (Necros, Laughing Hyenas, etc.) who took bone-necklaced, Hawaiian-shirt, nyuk-nyuk googoomuck like Ferndale trio Snake-Out’s 1985 Gollywobblers From Hell! remotely seriously; and 2) Give or take the theoretically game-changing Gories — stirred into action circa 1986 by the scum-slopped, gopher-gut, greaser-bands-that-went-nowhere bootleg compilation series Back From the Grave but who soon started imbibing sin-alley R&B howls — it’s questionable to what extent toga-party punk of the Nuggets-documented era was even the later Detroit stuff’s primary inspiration. Or, at least, hardly anybody was a purist jerk about it.
Case in point: The Dirtbombs, whom ex-Gories frontman Mick Collins put together on a lark in 1995 — the year he turned 30 — initially intending to limit the project to occasional seven-inch singles, though somehow they’ve managed to put out at least six albums since. Their two best to date have been covers collections: 2001’s soul-and-R&B Ultraglide in Black (Parliament, O’Jays, Barry White, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” long before Robin Thicke, Phil Lynott’s “Ode to a Black Man” partly because Collins is one like Thin Lizzy’s singer); and 2011’s Detroit techno(!) Party Store (Cybotron, Derrick May, Underground Resistance, DJ Assault, Inner City, a killer Kraut-motorik take on the faux-Eurotrash classic “Sharevari”). Over the years, the Dirtbombs have also remade material by Suicide, ESG, the Romantics, Soft Cell, Sparks, Flipper, and more. Their originals have referenced the Jackson 5, the Allman Brothers, and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)”; they work in Oi! shout and art drone and drag-race rap as much as Dick Dale surf tones.
And now they have a bubblegum album, in a class with the soul and techno ones — hey, Wilson Pickett covered “Sugar Sugar” once, so why not? Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey! has been a long time coming, teased and/or postponed by the band, and awaited and/or dreaded by fans for a decade. The first 200 LP copies even utilized Fleer-pink vinyl (just like Ruth Ruth’s 1996 “Brainiac” 45 and, uh, probably other things), but contrary to long-running rumors, this is not a covers record this time — just an amazing all-originals simulation, mostly of teeny-bop smashes by sundry Kasenetz-Katz-produced studio concoctions (plus the Archies) circa 1967-1970.
Rock bands have celebrated those happy sounds before (think the Ramones, Redd Kross, Joan Jett, early Poison, Shonen Knife), but maybe not recently, probably not so blatantly, and almost definitely not so rhythmically: Always blessed with two drummers and two bassists (though their specific names have changed over time), the Dirtbombs really pull off that “jughead beat” – i.e., the chintzy, clattery, probably Caribbean or beach-soul-inspired (and disco-inspiring) junior-high-dance groove from, say, 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver” or the Archies’ “Jingle Jangle” or Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy.”
The Dirtbombs’ “Jump and Shout,” for instance, has two propulsive, gratuitous, no-fuss extended cowbell sections stuck inside, and the percussion on “Sugar on Top” and “Hey! Cookie” is even funkier — if hip-hop wasn’t invented ’til next year, it might wanna swipe some of these beats. The old bubblegum Svengalis employed steel drums and roller-rink organs; the Dirtbombs probably don’t, but you never know. They do, however, know how to clap their hands in the air and do it double-time just like Simple Simon said, and while they apparently didn’t go full-on bubble-authentic by replacing themselves with anonymous studio pros, their publicity one-sheet does mention “a list of guest musicians so long there wasn’t time to credit them on the album cover.”
True to the pre-Lancelot Link era it’s aping, Ooey Gooey bounces through 10 songs in less than half an hour. And where the Dirtbombs’ Detroit-techno tribute had three songs about cars, this time there are three about sunny days, and three more about eating sweet things. And, in fact, the sweet thing who gets eaten in the sleazily low-registered “Hey! Cookie” (“Ooh, such a groovy scene / Gonna make sure I lick the plate clean”) is smack-dab in the tradition of the Ohio Express’ oral-sex obsession. That group’s immortal “Yummy Yummy Yummy” also gets directly nicked here for “Hot Sour Salty Sweet,” wherein Collins sings, “Ooh, I wanna see you / Ooh, I wanna meet you” to the exact same notes that Joey Levine once sang, “Ooh, love to hold ya / Ooh, love to kiss ya.”
Collins, now in his late 40s, admittedly sounds too grown up for such cuteness a lot of the time; he’s not equipped with Levine’s supremely snotty high-nasal whine. And his band — whose lineup seems to be solidifying as time goes on, but who’ve frequently been a bit too hardcore for their own good — needlessly rushes the tempo at times, and the production could usually afford to be shinier. But from the nursery-rhymey first verse — “Ice cream sundae, big banana split / You and me baby now don’t forget / One scoop, two scoop, never gonna stop / You got the love with the sugar on top” — they do b-gum’s assembly-line innocence proper.
The guitars get fuzzy, of course, though not that much more than in the Sweet’s early-’70s bazooka rock, and not so much that they obscure the hooks. And there are plenty of change-ups, too. “It’s Gonna Be Alright” (with a reassuring “It only gets better” chorus that may well owe Dan Savage) and “The Girl on the Carousel” are late-summer-afternoon-at-Cedar-Point, green-tambourine sublimeness in the lineage of the Archies’ “Bicycles, Rollerskates, and You” or even 1910 Fruitgum’s 1910-sounding 1968 track “The Year 2001″ (distant future then — confusing, huh?), relaxed enough to risk being twee if the Dirtbombs weren’t so committed to the bottom end. “Jump and Shout” opens with the same bass throb that INXS’s “Need You Tonight” (which the Dirtbombs have covered) took from either the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” or Warren Zevon’s “Nighttime in the Switching Yard.” “Sunshine Girl” explodes out of nowhere á la Plastic Bertrand’s Belgian bubble-punk “Ça Plane Pour Moi” (a.k.a. Elton Motello’s oral-sexed “Jet Boy Jet Girl”), then turns into some cardboard cartoon record from the back of an early-’70s cereal box, then electronically spirals toward the ceiling at the end.
Said spiraling continues into “No More Rainy Days/Sun Sound Interlude,” the sort of rubber-band-plucking cloudscape that dorks like the Flaming Lips fill entire albums with, but as a switcheroo here it kinda works, eventually evolving into a jerry-rigged whirligig thingamajig techno-whatsis perhaps related to the Japanese-character-titled mechanical Yellow Magic Orchestra homage or whatever it was that that Collins closed Party Store with last time. Ooey Gooey itself ends with the double-entendre extravaganza “We Come in the Sunshine,” over-the-top with overdubs and multi-tracked marching-band horns and/or whatnot, explicitly ripping “Good Vibrations” and Brian Wilson’s Phil Spector period and naïve ornate ambitions gone by in general, Collins’ hazy lead vocal intentionally warping from the heat.
Uh…if I was just reading that part instead of writing it, I might’ve scared myself away by now, so let me reiterate that Ooey Gooey largely succeeds in Keeping It Simple, Stupid. As in, “One kiss, two kiss, never gonna stop / Gimme more lovin’ with the sugar on top” — you get the idea. “Hot sour salty sweet / Girl your love is such a treat / Apples, peaches, pears, and plums / Can’t wait ’til the evenin’ comes.” That one could’ve used an Umami pun, maybe, but it’s timely how the song’s “eenie meenie miney mo” playground chant links it to one of the best bubblegum singles of 2013, Tiny-G’s K-pop hit “Minimanimo.” Like Jim Bickhart wrote in the liner notes to Warner Special Products’ 1977 TV-mail-order triple-LP compilation Super Bubble: “This is music that sticks to the bottom of your shoes and the roof of your mouth. This is what the high-brows of rock have been running from for years… If you don’t like it, chew it.” The Dirtbombs are five bananas playing in the bright warm sun.