Redd Kross, ‘Researching the Blues’ (Merge)
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Power-pop’s prodigal songs return, and struggle somewhat with both the power and the pop.
Lovedolls, Tater Totz, Tatum O’Tot and the Fried Vegetables, Sgt. Shonen’s Exploding Plastic Eastman Band, Anarchy 6, Carrie Nations, Brady Kids — the Redd Kross guys (Red Cross, actually, pre-lawsuit) have been big on your fake bands: covering them, singing about them, being them. They’ve got a few things in common with Nik Worth from Dana Spiotta’s 2011 rock-and-memory novel Stone Arabia, who spends decades meticulously auto-chronicling a career of side projects that exist mainly in his imagination, starting with a power-pop combo called, naturally, the Fakes, who actually played gigs (in the book, at least), but despite Nik’s documentation didn’t actually become superstars.
Then again, neither did Redd Kross. Like Stone Arabia‘s protagonists, they learned their sensibility from Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco glam-fakery circa pre-punk ’70s L.A.: hot children in the city loving Bolan and Bowie, running wild and looking pretty under their parents’ powdered suburban noses, or at least staying home rooting for the Runaways on ABC’s Rock N Roll Sports Classic once the Partridge Family were extinct. Awesome Redd Kross title, mysteriously added years later to 1982’s Linda Blair-loving, Charles Manson-covering slop bucket of a punk album Born Innocent: “St. Lita Ford’s Blues.”
Researching the Blues, their first album in a decade and a half, has blues in its name too, you’ll notice; the opening title track is a moderately punchy if not very locomotive train song. Later, probably the album’s pinnacle, comes “Winter Blues,” a possibly pro-global-warming argument for remaining in sunshine-pop SoCal in order to avoid seasonal affective disorder. That’s right: two “blues” songs from a band that, despite their once-discernible Blue Cheer and Zep-riff swipeage, has never exactly been prone to boogie (“I’m Alright” on Born Innocent came closest), much less honor authentic musical roots. Yet despite the uncharacteristically funky drums before the hang-ten surf harmonies of “One of the Good Ones,” these 10 three-minute-ish toons aren’t blues-based hard rock, except maybe in the sense of the stuff that Stone Temple Pilots maybe learned from Urge Overkill, who maybe learned it from Redd Kross (who now sometimes dress like Urge Overkill).
In other words: power pop. Which has basically been Redd Kross’ genre of choice since at least 1987’s Neurotica, which featured the same line-up — brothers Jeff (guitar/vocals) and Steven (bass/vocals) McDonald, no-relation drummer Roy McDonald (drums), and Robert Hecker (guitar/vocals) — as their new one. Thing is, back then, metal was part of their equation, too (they’d remade Kiss’ “Deuce” on covers EP Teen Babes from Monsanto in 1984, the same year the Replacements covered “Black Diamond”). Which positioned them oddly, given all the then-MTV-ruling hair bands who also sang about (and dressed like) foxy fallen-angel Sunset Strip runaways while referencing ’70s glam, only in a slightly different way.
Perhaps Redd Kross’ psychological proximity to hair metal scared them a little: “No metal sluts or punk rock ruts for me, oh noooo,” they hiccupped on Neurotica, and by 1990’s Third Eye (your favorite Redd Kross album if you’re, like, a Jellyfish fan), they were excising the crunch while emphasizing the fussy and fey. Which was okay, in retrospect: “Annie’s Gone” was a catchy modern-rock hit (their biggest ever), the tributes to Kasanetz-Katz and Shonen Knife and Zira from Planet of the Apes were cute, and chucka-chucka-beat “1976” holds up almost as well as Alan Jackson’s song of the same bicentennial name. But the crazy energy of the band’s ’80s records was gone, and two ’90s CDs that followed were just more college rock.
So now it’s 2012. Steven and Jeff McDonald, three and seven years old respectively when Josie and the Pussycats first aired and super-precocious teens when Red Cross first waxed, are now 45 and 49. They’ve produced the Donnas (which makes perfect sense), mashed up the White Stripes (on an album titled Redd Blood Cells), and now Steven moonlights in the not particularly distinctive hardcore-nostalgia supergroup Off! — sort of like Anarchy 6 without punchlines. Researching the Blues doesn’t provide many jokes, either. Also, no traces of previous obsessions Eve Plumb, Susan Dey, Kristy McNichol, Squeaky Fromme, Rex Smith, or H.R. Pufnstuf. Uniformly medium tempos, but plenty of somersaulting nasal harmonies & #8212; “Stay Away from Downtown” has quite the memorable chorus.
So, every sha la la-la and wo-o-wo-o still shines, as the brothers McDonald once crooned in Carpenters cover “Yesterday Once More” (which reached No. 45 hit on the charts in England!), or at least sort of shines: Cleaner production might’ve buried the vocals less. And sure, sounding cruddy was always part of the point (“We are not stupid boys but we want to do it wrong,” they philosophized on Neurotica, which Robert Christgau classified as “ill-made”). But once upon a time, back when they were reminding us how funny and phony the ’70s were, the crud was a means to an end.