Almost as soon as the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll was coming to a close, people began to pine for the halcyon days when most things were apparently acceptable and free. The Strange Boys continue the tradition, wearing a hefty pair of rose-tinted glasses and yearning for a carefree past with glazed innocence and heartwarming melancholy. This approach isn’t without its pitfalls: there’s always the looming danger of plagiarism, of sounding stale and to be received with the sense that it’s all been done and heard before. But despite their nods to the past, Strange Boys manage to fix themselves in the present with a freshness that stems from the simple fact that garage rock needs a boot up the backside by some fun lovin’ misfits.
The Strange Boys debuted last year with The Strange Boys… and Girls Club, earning them a hefty swag bag of favorable reviews for their carefree, thigh-slapping sense of joy, with criticism only leveled at its rather bloated length of a gargantuan 16 tracks. Ryan Sambol and co have obviously taken heed of this with Be Brave, an album that attempts to pack all the punches of last year’s release into a streamlined collection of 12 tracks. Other changes include adding Seth Densham and Jenna Thornhill (of the almighty indie punk band Mika Miko, who tragically split early this year) to the band and signing with Rough Trade to handle their music outside of the US (where they remain on In The Red).
But not everything’s changed. “I See” kicks off the album with foot-stomping harmonica and arm-swinging drums, proving that they are still up for good hard fun rather than moaning mournfully about their excesses. In true Texan fashion, their bluesy garage rock is still veiled in lo-fi atmospherics, conjuring a sound shaped by murky desert dust and sun-baked southern swagger. The best example of this is “The Unsent Letter,” with a piano that sounds as if it has stood crumbling for years in the corner of an unkempt saloon bar, the keys sticky with liquor. Sambol still sounds like Bob Dylan raised on a strict diet of asphalt and moonshine, pleasantly slashing up sounds into overdriven remnants of melodies. Listen hard and you’ll hear his sharpened sense of self-deprecating humour: “I smile and think/ Sex is like laughter/ You do it differently with different people/ Sometimes you feel sick after,” he cries in “Laugh At Sex, Not Her.”
The only thing letting The Strange Boys down this time is a lack of vivacity. Their attitude is dripping from every song, but occasionally you’ll find yourself wanting them to blow their top, to unleash the energy they seem to be capping throughout for the sake of melody. In many ways, the album sounds like what Kings of Leon attempted with their debut Youth And Young Manhood, but didn’t have the guts to present it in such a raw, fleshless manor. But don’t worry: you’ll never find The Strange Boys casting their sound over vast stadiums of worshipers. No, you’ll still find them in dusty, grimy, booze-drenched venues — and what a fitting relief that is.