Today’s post-Our Band Could Be Your Life omniscient musical landscape has brought with it a renewed and diffused interest in the subterranean fruits of the Reagan era, and in particular the cluster of hardcore punk bands assembled around L.A.’s trailblazing SST Records. The best of these used punk as a vehicle for provocative progression via fusion with decidedly non-punk influences: Black Flag responded to their fans’ demand for speed and simplicity by incorporating Black Sabbath’s glacial tempos and The Grateful Dead’s endless noodling; The Minutemen earnestly covered working-class favorites Steely Dan and Blue Öyster Cult; The Meat Puppets got way out there with the desert Americana of Neil Young and ZZ Top; and Hüsker Dü integrated The Byrds’ melodic sensibilities into their hardcore fury.
But for the brothers at the core of Red Cross, whose first gig (opening for Black Flag) featured an 11-year-old Steve and 15-year-old Jeff McDonald, hardcore punk’s infantile nature must have seemed especially transparent, because by 1984’s Teen Babes From Monsanto, they had already metamorphosed into Redd Kross and moved from their scrappy trash-snot beginnings on to sloppily covering the likes of Kiss, The Rolling Stones, and Monkees songsmiths Boyce & Hart, replete with lengthy guitar solos. Ostensibly a glam metal band by the time the brothers were joined by Roy McDonald (no relation) and Robert Hecker, 1987’s excellent Neurotica is a power pop album that appropriates kitsch culture with the tasteful discernment that even a holier-than-thou Guns N’ Roses-hating college radio doofus can appreciate. Although they subsequently signed to Atlantic Records and released three streamlined records of varying quality, slick with major label cash, it is the band’s Neurotica lineup that has reunited for Researching The Blues, Redd Kross’ first album in 15 years and their Merge Records debut.
Given their propensity for digging into the past for influences, one could reasonably expect that, with a title like Researching The Blues, the Kross’ latest might be a tribute to the forefathers of their chosen idiom of expression. But even a cursory listen to the album is quick to dispel any notion of a departure from their previous work. Bright major chords open “Winter Blues” without the slightest hint of the genre’s characteristic blue notes or structure: “I live in a place where the light shines on my face/ And if I had to move I would have to face the gloom, and doom, of nine months in the darkness.” Or: Jeff McDonald lives in sunny California, and there is no way in hell he is going to face the winter blues that lie in wait elsewhere. Likewise, the album’s opening title track gives little indication that the band has been pulling their dusty Skip James records off the shelf, yet does provide some isolated blues-rock posturing before lapsing into a quintessentially Kross chorus. This isn’t to say that the band isn’t doing their homework, but rather that their rear-view mirror displays objects that are closer than they might appear — their research doesn’t seem to stretch any further back than the 60s nostalgia they’ve been mining all along.
Stripping the blues from R&B and replacing it with saccharine-sweet hooks, power pop has never really been a genre concerned with originality or experimentation. And Researching The Blues remains true to its conventions, delivering 10 succinct slabs of pop charged with the same frosted-flake high and campy allusions that inspired Neurotica. The band is at its best when, on “Dracula’s Daughters,” “The Nu Temptations,” and “Winter Blues,” they sound like themselves. “Choose to Play” manages to use a near-facsimile of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” verse as a conduit for one of the album’s closest flirtations with pop perfection. But elsewhere less convincing, the band’s nods to ubiquitous power pop stalwarts The Beatles, The Cars, Kiss, and even Blur are pleasantly disposable at best and devolve into commercial and flaccid self-parody at worst.
Despite sharing members with Black Flag, Red Kross never appeared on SST proper, and history has not been kind to the brothers. (Thumbing through my copy of the aforementioned Our Band Could Be Your Life, the band’s name doesn’t even grace the book’s index). Too pop for the underground and too ahead of the curve to capitalize on the early 90s alt-rock boom, true commercial success has always evaded the band. But I think this is key to redeeming the album from some of its missteps: whereas other key players of the 80s American underground (I’m thinking of Dinosaur Jr. and, to a lesser extent, Mission Of Burma here) have recently reunited to the fanfare of a younger and more abundant generation, sometimes despite caustic inner turmoil, Redd Kross’ reunion is hardly a cash-in. Steve McDonald, in a recent interview, describes the reunion with his old bandmates as a comforting return to an interpersonal dynamic of inside jokes within which he can just turn his brain off. Redd Kross’ perpetual act of nostalgia might be interpreted as stagnation or even regression, but on this self-produced album, the band comfortably fits back into their modest aspirations of pop cultural preservation, free from the reins of major label pressure. Hardly a return to form, Researching The Blues (complete with the burp at the end of “One of the Good Ones”) is nevertheless a document of a band having a good time doing what they love. When the hooks are this strong, it’s hard not to have a good time with them.