When I tell people my favorite band is The Fleshtones — at least the folks who at least know who they are — I get a lot of “You mean they’re still around?”
Well, the same goes for their kindred souls and good pals from Sydney, the Hoodoo Gurus — except, unlike the ‘shtones (together since 1976), the Gurus, formed in 1980, did split up for a spell (1998-2003). Well-liked in the States among fans of garage and ’80s-’90s college radio, but revered in their home country — and inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame in 2007 — the foursome recorded a reunion album in ’04, “Mach Shau,” but it never came out here.
“Purity of Essence” is the first Gurus disc released Stateside since “Blue Cave” in ’96. And damn, it’s so good to have them back. It’s as if they never left.
The Gurus’ basic structure hasn’t changed since a bit.
Since their 1983 debut, “Stoneage Romeos,” taken from a Three Stooges short, their album titles often have had some cool pop culture reference: “Mars Needs Guitars!” from “Mars Needs Women,” “Mach Shau” (and I’m educated-guessing here) taken from what West German club managers used to shout (translated: “Make show!”) at one of the most exalted bands among ’60s garageheads, The Monks. And now, there’s “Purity of Essence,” from a line in “Dr. Strangelove.”
Likewise, the bones of the band — whose junior member, bassist Rick Grossman, joined in 1988 — are essentially unchanged: Brad Shepherd’s tough, hard-edged guitar sound, which straddles punk, garage and metal; Mark Kingsmill’s pounding, also hard but with occasional deft changeups; and especially frontman Dave Faulkner and his trademark Very Australian voice. With some legendary bands — and let’s go with the two bonded by brotherhood, AC/DC and The Easybeats — you can’t tell they were Australian by casual listen. English, maybe, but not Australian. Midnight Oil? Oh yeah; Peter Garrett had it in spades. And Faulkner really has it, too — that extremely pronounced accent, with a deep twang.
In addition, the band relied on some familiar friends to nail down the studio sound — co-production by Charles Fisher, who did the honors on 1985′s “Mars Needs Guitars!” and on “Blue Cave”; and mix by Ramones producer Ed Stasium, who produced 1995′s “Crank” and mixed 1991′s “Kinky.”
So there was no need to wonder, even cautiously, whether these were the same Gurus after all these years — the opening song, released back home in December as the first single, is a resounding yes. “Crackin’ Up” combines a relentless, furious staccato of a guitar rhythm with an infectious melody and Faulkner’s lyrics about the strain of trying to live up to everyone else’s tags and expectations. And, ironically enough, the song lives up to my expectations, and then some. And then some more.
But this is far from a monolithic recording. The band mixes up its sound the way a pitcher varies his repertoire. But through it all, there’s one consistent: Faulkner’s subject material, which has increasingly gone in a more serious and mature direction through the years, really resonates on “Purity.”
“I Hope You’re Happy,” about extremes people will go to in order to find happiness (joining a cult, plastic surgery, meditation), unashamedly channels Solomon Burke and the gospel explosion of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” The equally bouncy “Burnt Orange” is Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” in reverse — Dave doesn’t want to relive his younger years (“I wouldn’t go back there if I could” … “I remember very well … Way back when I went through hell”), only he and the band say it with some of the hornful glee of The Cure’s “Why Can’t I Be You?” The punk fire of “What’s In It for Me?” speaks for itself.
And when he brings down the pace a few notches, he’s just as effective in conveying his emotions. “Ashamed of Me,” another self-explanatory tune, sails over a roiling sea of guitars, his anger rising the farther out to sea he gets. “Over Nothing,” sung in gravel-low register with a deep guitar twang to match, pointedly expresses the futility and stupidity of seeing a friendship die for no reason.
Aside from the opening single, the most striking song is “Only in America.” Faulkner has never made a secret of his lifelong love affair with America (not only is he down with our music, TV and movies, he’s a longtime fan of the New Orleans Saints, like this writer, and the New York Mets).
But love of the States doesn’t mean blind allegiance, and the Gurus’ horn-and-guitar-punched twist on “Living in America” shines a spotlight on some of the downside of life here: namely, the religious fanaticism (“A preacher’s thumping his Bible and preying on the suicidal/He’ll lead us up to salvation for some small remuneration”) and the plight of immigrants who come here looking for a better life and get much less (“He ended up in a sweatshop/Prosperity was gonna be his next stop/But 12-hour days of minimum wage/have turned him into a New World slave”). It’s as strong a political statement as Faulkner has made to date, and he does it with melody and a high degree of energy.
I’ve always felt kind of simpatico with Faulkner, and not because he produced my favorite band’s best album (The Fleshtones’ “Powerstance”) or because of his loyalty to the Super Bowl champs. It’s partly because he has excellent musical taste, he refuses to be pigeonholed on most things, he wears his emotions for all to hear and because he, too, straddles the fine line between campy fun and deadly seriousness, between toughness and sensitivity. All of these qualities can be found in spades on “Purity of Essence” — an album with a most appropriate title. Like Dolly, it’s so nice to have the Gurus back where they belong. And unlike that last line, the album is all meat, no cheese.
One bitch-and-moan note, and it’s something I ranted about in the review of the Roky Erickson/Okkervil River album, too: Do graphic artists have much better eyes than the rest of us that they can get away with setting the lyrics in 4-point type — and in a skinny font, at that — in white on a busy background? WTF? What’s the use? It adds up to a huge waste of time and trees. Please buy a clue — customers aren’t reading these liner notes in 400% on a Mac monitor.
If you’ve recorded an album and want me to give it a listen, or know of an upcoming album you think I should be aware of, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It has to be available in CD form. For disclosure’s sake: I was given a promo copy of this one.
Tags: Blue Cave, Brad Shepherd, Dave Faulkner, Fran Fried, Franorama World, Hoodoo Gurus, Mach Shau, Mark Kingsmill, Mars Needs Guitars!, Purity of Essence, Rick Grossman, Stoneage Romeos, The Fleshtones