We "Spot-the-Influence" track by track on the band's new album, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
There’s the respect /That makes calamity of so long life.
So says Hamlet at the beginning of Act III. Was he speaking of rock criticism? While no one can ever be sure, there’s a large segment of society that thinks so and you can count me among them. Having listened to this music we call rock since I was a young’un, I find it difficult not to compare and contrast the new with that which has come before. In spite of increasingly splintered sub-genres, (Yeesh, Shakespeare AND “increasingly splintered sub-genres” Who does this egghead think he’s kidding? Stay with me here; it gets better….I hope), there truly is no new thing under the sun. (Was the Book of Ecclesiastes written about rock criticism? No one can ever be sure.) Anyway, at my age it’s difficult these days to hear a rock and roll song that doesn’t somehow resemble one I’ve already heard. And it’s even worse when trying to write about them because #1 on the list of Music Critics’ Crutches is the direct comparison between the new song from apples and that old one from oranges.
Which brings me to the Flamin’ Groovies, a band who have made something of a career of sounding like other bands. Coming out of San Francisco in the late 1960’s, the Groovies never remotely scaled the heights that the Beatles, Stones and Byrds did, even though they frequently mined the same sounds. An early proponent of what would later become known as power-pop, the Groovies produced some classic songs that would in turn influence later bands. Classic rock radio would be much enlivened today with cuts like “Slow Death”, “You Tore Me Down”, “Tallahassee Lassie” and what may be the ultimate power pop tune, “Shake Some Action.” But in many quarters, they were looked upon as rock and roll revivalists, just a notch or two above Sha Na Na, and a series of uneven albums sold poorly before hastening the band to their end in 1980. Since then, there have been partial reunions and even a 1993 studio album that left little impact.
But now, the reconstituted Groovies – founding members Cyril Jordan, George Alexander, longtime singer/guitarist Chris Wilson and newly recruited drummer Victor Penalosa – have a new album, Fantastic Plastic, and I cannot fight the compulsion to play Spot-the-Influence because they show up on just about every track. Yes, it’s lazy; yes, it does a disservice to the band (or maybe it doesn’t, let’s see how it plays out) but I’m going to do it anyway AND I’m going to tell you why it doesn’t matter a damned bit.
- Opener “What the Hell’s Going On” – a title for our times, if nothing else – opens with a riff from John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” before moving on, thank goodness, to become a sort of nebulous disparagement of modern day apathy with an early Seventies Stones-y groove. Wilson sounds both bewildered and angry as he spits out his list of daily inequities.
- “End of the World” bears more than a passing resemblance to the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” but features gorgeous twin vocals from Wilson and Jordan and nice backwards guitar solo to lead the way out.
- “Let Me Rock” is a rather self-conscious defense of rock and roll, one that is hardly needed after 50+ years in the business and, if comes across as desperate, well, we live in desperate times. Doo-wop-style “sha la’s” are a nice nod to the Groovies’ earliest revivalist tendencies.
- “She Loves Me” is more lush guitar pop in the style of the Byrds while…
- “Crazy Macy” sounds like The Great Lost Dave Edmunds single.
- I can’t quite determine the analogous classic hit behind “Lonely Hearts” which is just as well since it’s the weakest cut on Fantastic Plastic and I’m not here to besmirch rock and roll forebears. That said, it’s still a pleasant enough moon-in-June love song with some very sweet guitar leads.
- “Just Like a Hurricane”, not a Carlene Carter cover as I had hoped, opens with some ZZ Top bluster but Chris Wilson’s vocals are needlessly treated to sound like he’s singing through a megaphone. “Winchester Cathedral,” anyone?
- “I’d Rather Spend My Time With You” is a funny title for an instrumental, perhaps an ode to Cyril Jordan’s guitar.
- “Cryin’ Shame”, yet another Byrds homage, takes the opening guitar lick from “Mr. Tambourine Man” though it never descends to slavishness.
- A cover of NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad” may be the best cut on the collection. Another cover – the Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, something of a Byrds cop even in 1965 – is almost uncanny in its resemblance to mid-period REM even if Wilson articulates better than Michael Stipe ever did.
This is not a challenging record by any means and sometimes that’s what the listener wants. Like a favorite shirt, long missing but recently recovered and found to still fit – because clothing similes rank high on the Critics Crutch List too – Fantastic Plastic may not be fashionable but it’s familiar, ultra-comfortable and perfect when you want to forego Shakespeare and just read the funnies.