It’s more common for electro-oriented artists to cover rock songs than for rockers to repay the compliment, a natural enough thing given rock’s deeper history, but the reverse does occur from time to time. Uwe Schmidt’s recording of Kraftwerk songs in a Latin style under his alter ego Señor Coconut stands out as one of the more imaginative of these efforts, but despite their reliance on synthesizers and bold declaration that they are the robots, Kraftwerk holds a secure place within the rock canon. Their songs have a more or less traditional structure and can be easily played on stringed instruments and drum kits. And while younger generations have fully embraced the idea of using machines to make music, techno still has a much tougher time getting respect from old-school rock fans. If a lot of these moldy figs listen to newer bands, they’re usually along the lines of blues-based, classic rock-loving acts like The White Stripes or The Black Keys. If they ever had a chance to hear them, the same people who love those groups would probably (hopefully) like the scads of lower-profile groups operating with more traditional forms of rock and soul, of which The Dirtbombs are one of the leading exemplars. What those listeners would make of Party Store, the band’s take on classic techno, I’m not sure.
The Dirtbombs aren’t the most immediately obvious band to record an album of techno covers, but when you both consider Mick Collins’ allegiance to his hometown of Detroit and recall Ultraglide in Black, the band’s 2001 collection of soul/funk covers from Collins’ youth, it makes more sense. Living in Detroit in the 1980s, when the songs selected for Party Store were originally produced, Collins heard cutting-edge tracks like Juan Atkins and Cybotron’s “Cosmic Cars” and Inner City’s “Good Life” long before the rest of the world took notice. And whether or not he was fully on board with the sound back when he was playing in his seminal punk blues band The Gories, he was certainly likely to have given it more consideration than the majority of his rockist peers must have. This recording also doesn’t seem so odd when you think about how much funkier and more concerned with rhythm The Dirtbombs are than a lot of rock bands. Although guitars certainly figure prominently on Party Store, especially on the extended freak-out in the middle of the 21-minute “Bug in the Bass Bin,” the album is dominated by improbably tight drum and bass patterns that mimic machines. It’s not unlike what bands like Gang Gang Dance or Teeth Mountain do, basing much of their aesthetic on their ability to produce marathon rhythmic workouts using multiple drummers, but coming from The Dirtbombs it’s a bit of a surprise and, not so surprisingly, has more of a groove.
“Bug in the Bass Bin” is something of an anomaly for the album, the most radical reworking of an original track. The version by Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra was already less structured than the typical dance-oriented techno track, allowing for jazzy improvisation, and here the band stretch it out to twice the length of the original. It’s a bit jarring the first time around, and you may wonder why they let it go on as long as they did. But heard as the band’s take on an extended mix in the style of club music, it works well, even if nobody will be hitting the dance floor to this; it’s more a rock translation of the style than an attempt to ape it. Craig himself adds modular synthesizer to the track, and he tries to match Collins’ wigged-out solo with his own psychedelic sounds that seem more ELP than EDM.
Despite working with two drummers, the mechanics of some beats proved difficult to emulate, and drum machines do make appearances on a few tracks, most notably Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and closing track “謎のミスタ-ナイソ (Detroito Mix).” The latter is the most identifiably techno thing here, a song the band has stripped of almost all rock elements and allowed synthesizers to dominate. If they had attacked the entire album in this style, it would have come off as more of a novelty, not nearly as fun or likely to stand up to repeated listening. Having said that, the conceptual nature of Party Store makes it the least all-purpose Dirtbombs record yet. Despite its title, I suspect it won’t become their fans’ go-to record at parties.
But The Dirtbombs are an easy band to like. They have a charismatic singer/guitarist with enviable swagger and unimpeachable street cred, superb musicianship that rarely gets showy, and excellent taste that comes from an obvious love for and knowledge of a wide range of American popular music. An unexpected album like this makes them even more admirable. Hailing from a city forever linked with some of the greatest pop and soul music, Collins and crew are also wise enough to know how large a part techno plays in the city’s history. They know that a sound so anathema to many rock and soul fans as anti-human or soulless may have been created on machines, but it was the left-field creativity and forward-thinking imagination of a few of his city’s citizens that helped to change the sound of popular music.