The Parting Gifts Strychnine Dandelion

[In the Red; 2010]

Styles: garage, punk, country
Others: The Kinks, The Who, The Shangri-Las, Sir Douglas Quintet, Nancy Sinatra, Dion … Reigning Sound, The Oblivians, The Ettes

Wow, I think I’m in love with Strychnine Dandelion, the new album by The Parting Gifts. They write the catchiest damn pop songs, drawing from the best of both 60s garage rock and early incarnations of British invasion acts like The Kinks and The Who. Their tunes are instantly ingratiating and deliciously sing-able, full of swoon-worthy chord changes, infectious hooks, and witty lyrics. The album probably won’t change your life, but that’s what makes it so endearing. It delivers straight-up garage pop without pretentions, the band doing nothing more important than making music they love, sweating it out for the sake of a good tune. And it works, 15 times in a row, one two-minute marvel after another, like some long-lost greatest hits collection from middle America’s greatest unknown band.

The Parting Gifts are composed of several fuzzed-out garage acts. It’s America’s own, homegrown answer to The New Pornographers: raunchier, sweatier, and less, um, Canadian. It stars Greg Cartwright, founder of The Oblivians and Reigning Sound, and Coco Hames, whose fierce twang helms The Ettes. They’re joined here by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and The Raconteurs’ Patrick Keeler, no slouches when it comes to deep-fried American rock. Together, the group rips through a bunch of retro styles — punk, garage, surf, girl group, Tex-Mex, country, rockabilly, etc. — without ever once seeming nostalgic or cliché. This group has a rich pedigree and impeccable tastes (man, I’d love to flip through their record collection), but they don’t need to gloat, because they’ve got the songwriting chops to match. Lucky for us, they’re deeply invested in Americana, but only from the fringes. The album could serve as the next volume of Nuggets’ Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era collection. The group is equally comfortable with rock and country, but they take their best cues from beautifully misbegotten freak-out acts like The Sonics, The Seeds, and The Monks. They’re tapping into the real weird America, not the fake one that Greil Marcus writes about. And unlike other touted nativist acts like Wilco, who need to gussy up their influences with avant-garde dorkiness, this band plays it straight, giving us hard-up retro rock and roll like it’s meant to be: rough, greasy, and totally out there.

Most of the credit here goes to songwriter Greg Cartwright. Cartwright’s been in garage bands since the seventh grade, and he’s honed his craft through nearly three decades of Memphis junk shop record collecting and dive-bar touring. The songs on Strychnine Dandelion are dramatic in the best sense of the word; they’re full of character and color, using the seemingly simple structures of pop songcraft to convey real moments of crisis and yearning. Cartwright draws from a range of excellent sources: the angsty street narratives of Eddie Cochran, the tragic love tales of The Shangri-Las, and even the cute back-and-forth bickerings of Johnny and June. He’s got a ton of styles in his back pocket, and his songs all match character to form, so that the dramatic arc neatly follows the musical arc and the portrait, no matter how mundane, falls effectively into the verse-chorus structure. “Keep Walkin’” is a snarling punk riff on having a shit job and a bitchy girl; the angry tension of the verse leads brilliantly to the kiss-off release of the chorus. “Starin’ At the Sun” is an earnest wake-up call to a melancholic lover; the singer’s argument is perfectly set to bright Buddy Holly chord changes (“Crying, Waiting, Hoping”) and an early Who mix (“I Can’t Explain”).

But this is a supergroup, and part of the fun lies in the interplay between musicians, especially Cartwright and Hames. In the classic tradition of the “answer song,” the two singers take turns poking holes in each other’s vows and proclamations, comically deflating their assigned roles in the pop tradition. If, in one song, Cartwright presents the male lover as a victim of female fickleness (“Strange Disposition”), Hames, in the next, calls him on his duplicity and offers a cutting declaration of independence (“My Mind’s Made Up”). As in their earlier work, Cartwright and Hames pay homage to their sources while messing with their stereotypes, affirming pop’s power and range as a form of social commentary. (Fans of The Ettes will get a kick out of Hames’ subtle girl group take on the Stones’ “(Walkin’ Thru the) Sleepy City”). As a whole, though, the collection hints at a set of more common, basic desires for the comforts of home. For every deconstructive leave-taking there’s another restorative return; if one character laments, “This house ain’t a home no more,” another announces that he’s “walkin’ on until I find a home,” and yet a third exclaims, “Now I’m coming home!” If these songs and characters all come from the American fringes, they seem united by the same American yearning and come together, paradoxically, to generate a real sense of community and belonging.

In fact, the album’s most thrilling moments offer up their own pop ridiculousness as a source of comfort. The song “Shine” is as close as you can get to a perfect pop song. It exists somewhere between Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle” and Big Star’s “Thirteen,” but it’s warmer than the first and catchier than the second. The lyrics trade in tenderness, while the music itself performs that perfect pop trick of turning yearning into an unbearable pleasure. Cartwright sings in the first verse, “Here she comes, a book in her hand/ I’m gonna try some small talk if I can/ I’ve been saving my best lines, for when her eyes meet mine/ They’re gonna shine!” The words convey shyness, eagerness, cunning, and, ultimately, an impossible confidence, and they’re matched by a perfect pop bounce, a wistful slide guitar, and a crushing set of “ooh”s and “aah”s. It’s a brilliant moment, and it proves (yet again) that American pop — as throwaway pop — remains one of our greatest national treasures.

Links: The Parting Gifts - In the Red

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