In the Red has been on a tear the last few years, releasing album after album of quality, fuzz-soaked garage rock. The label’s roster has grown surprisingly diverse, with the best bands all arranging curious little marriages for their lo-fi rock ’n’ roll: The Black Lips' mating of psych and R&B to birth their signature brand of “flower punk”; Mark Sultan and King Khan dry-humping doo-wop and rockabilly with The King Khan and BBQ Show; Jay Reatard’s affinity for Go-Betweens-style acoustic pop and Brian Eno’s glammier outings; and the Vivian Girls’ take on girl-group classics through a shoegaze lens. It’s not just the label’s Pitchfork-attention-grabbers, either: Davila 666, Cheap Time, The Mystery Girls, Black Time — all bands eager to add liberal doses of vintage power pop, Del Shannon worship, Brian Jones voodoo, and primitive riffing to their punk-based formulas.
Add The Strange Boys to that list, playing the rock ’n’ roll thing a hell of a lot straighter than most of their labelmates. Sure, the appropriate signifiers are there: the blown speaker aesthetic, the snotty vocals, the feel-it-more-than-hear-it drum-kit abuse. But The Strange Boys opt for a more classic framework, driving a rhythm and blues chassis augmented by the kind of desert-scarred psych and blues that their Texan spiritual forefathers Roky Ericson and Doug Sahm wrote with The 13th Floor Elevators and Sir Douglas Quintet. Harmonicas whine, guitars jangle, and guitarist and singer/songwriter Ryan Sambol’s vocals careen and yearn, the result of what sounds like years of white-boy soul-searching and crate-digging. A recent feature by Dusted reveals that the Boys originally recorded Strange Boys… and Girls Club with Jay Reatard, but scrapped the sessions in favor of those made with their friend and collaborator Orville Neley in an abandoned liquor store. Having never heard the Reatard recordings, it’s hard to say definitively that the band made the right choice, but the idea of the Boys bashing these tunes out in a ramshackle booze-stop is too good to pass up; you can practically hear the vocals bouncing off dusty old bottles of hooch.
Sixteen tracks make for a long album, but the set works remarkably, with the Boys’ excursions into Tex-Mex pop and blues rarely even pushing the three-minute mark. “Woe Is You and Me” kicks things off with a rocker, Sambol’s distorted vocals uppity over a rolling groove supplied by brother Phillip on bass and drummer Matt Hammer. “They’re Building the Death Camps” gets all "God said to Abraham/ Kill me a son," with Greg Enlow’s Telecaster wrangling reminiscent of Mike Bloomfield’s work with the electrified Dylan. “Should Have Shot Paul” showcases angelic harmonies echoing the title lyrics, perhaps suggesting a different target for Mark David Chapman. “Heard You Wanna Beat Me Up” recounts the travails of man caught messing with another man’s girl, and is the album's most effervescent moment, 2 minutes and 10 seconds of effortless joy, the kind of song that would have sounded great in 1959 and still does today. “This Girl Taught Me a Dance” is actually danceable, with a chiming 12-string offering a discordant melodic counterpoint to the song before the whole thing erupts into a rave-up, cymbals crashing and bass thumping mercilessly. “Death and All the Rest” finds the band stretching the furthest; Sambol sings of redemption and death over old-timey acoustic guitars and twinkling bar-room pianos, tapping into the spirit of the South that haunts so much of their homeland.
Jim Jarmusch famously said in his interview with MovieMaker magazine: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.... Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.” Strange Boys… and Girls Club is a record that lives that idea; that the Boys can try on such big shoes and not sound ridiculous is their biggest asset, one gained through honest love of their medium and absolute sincerity, attention paid to every detail of the records they so obviously cherish. Make no mistake, this album doesn’t sound like homework. It sounds like a young band successfully tapping into why we can’t help but geek out over this kind of stuff: an undeniable sense of joy.
1. Woe Is You And Me
2. They're Building The Death Camps
3. Should Have Shot Paul
5. This Girl Taught Me A Dance
6. For Lack of a Better Face
7. Heard You Wanna Beat Me Up
8. No Way For a Slave To Behave
9. Poem Party
10. To Turn a Tune or Two
11. Most Things
12. A Man You've Never Known
14. Who Needs Who More
15. Probation Blues
16. Death and All The Rest