“It’s our favorite record, believe it or not. Most bands that wait 15 years between records, it’s always kind of a tired blues jammy jam. I think people who don’t know this record will dig it.”
–Jeff McDonald, singer/guitarist/older brother
Last time out I listed my Top 3 albums of 2012. At the top of said list was Redd Kross‘ Researching The Blues, released by Merge in August. In an era when two guitars-bass-drums rock ‘n’ roll seems quaintly old-fashioned, the Kross breathes new life into both the genre and their career. If you’re a fan of The Kinks, Cheap Trick, Grand Champeen, Hoodoo Gurus, or Model Rockets/Tripwires, read on.
Brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald (bass, vocals, younger brother) have been the core of Redd Kross since 19-freakin-78, when Jeff turned 15 and Steven turned 11. FIFTEEN? ELEVEN?!?! True story. Check out the picture below. It’s the earliest known photograph of the band, back when they called themselves The Tourists. They’d soon change their name to Red Cross, then finally Redd Kross.
This picture captures an important moment in southern California music history. About an hour after this Tourists set, lead singer Keith Morris‘ other band, Black Flag, played what a local paper called “frenetic, anarchistic rock.” (They say that like it’s a bad thing!) The band’s music certainly didn’t meet the “Hotel California” equivalency test, while Morris’ contemptuous, profanity-laced vitriol from stage induced a bunch of Coorslighty suburbanites to hurl shit at the band (mostly food). The “Polliwog Park Riot” ushered in an era when SoCal punk shows, especially those involving Black Flag, became hot spots for paranoid middle class outrage and police overreaction.
- Check out More Than A Witness for an amusing recollection and low quality audience recording.
Historically, one of the curious things about Redd Kross was that they were friends with Black Flag (if not the majority of the SST roster), influenced Sonic Youth and many of the Seattle bands who comprised early Sub Pop, but stylistically, virtually all of those bands were closer to each other than they were to Redd Kross. Not that they couldn’t be abrasive and punk/metal-influenced, but the Kross was probably the first punk band to openly embrace power-pop, ’70s AM radio, and lowbrow TV culture in an ironic, campy, and knowingly retro way, and somehow pull it off. I think the fact that they were legit musicians not afraid to poke fun at themselves (“We’re a cover band!”) gave them a credibility buffer. Let’s just say that not many bands could get away with a song called “Tatum O’ Tot And The Fried Vegetables!”
As I said in 2012: The Silver Age, Redd Kross has managed the impossible. They waited 34 years to produce their best record. In the history of rock, I can’t think of a single credible artist whose best work came 30 years after their debut, with every member of the band in his 40s. Researching The Blues has 5-6 songs — out of 10, mind you — that would be my favorite song on damn near every other album released this year. And I think this is a good year for music. In that respect, it reminds me of Superchunk‘s 2010 album, Majesty Shredding, in that it clearly wasn’t just a comeback for comeback’s sake. They’re both albums that stand up to the rest of the catalog. It’s hard enough to make great music during one’s 20s and 30s, when we expect great rock music to be produced, but to peak in middle age? Peach Kelli Pop never saw that coming.
WHERE THE LIGHT SHINES ON MY FACE
Redd Kross – Winter Blues
Researching The Blues, 2012
I chose “Winter Blues” because it’s certainly a title befitting the national temperament. I also chose it because it’s a perfect slice of power pop and a brilliant distillation of the Jeff McDonald Melody Infiltration Aesthetic. Here are 5 reasons why “Winter Blues” is musical perfection incarnate:
- So catchy it’s hard to believe this song wasn’t already written. This is a #1 hit single in that alternate timeline where American radio is life-affirming and people don’t suck.
- Demonstrates yet again why sibling harmonies are the best harmonies. Cowsill/Davies/Wilson —–> Redd Kross. Steven’s wife, Anna Waronker from That Dog, also contributes her angelic harmony singing, and it’s totally crushed out.
- The beautiful double-tracked George Harrison-esque slide solo. Not sure if it’s Jeff Mac or lead guitarist, Robert Hecker, but more please.
- Roy McDonald (no relation) on drums. He’s the secret weapon of Redd Kross, putting the power in power-pop. Earlier this summer I watched him play behind The Muffs — for whom he’s been kit master since 1994 — and he drove the band like sled dogs. His muscular, in the pocket presence reminds me of Jon Wurster‘s drumming in Superchunk, and I’d be shocked if Wurster wasn’t a fan of Roy Mac’s playing.
- Steven McDonald’s dry production. If Roy is the secret weapon of the band, Steven’s production is the secret weapon of this album. Researching The Blues is my favorite Redd Kross record in no small part due to the sparse production with its thick drum sound and fat, warm guitar tones free of the metal overtones that date Phaseshifter, Show World, and for slightly different reasons, Neurotica.
Redd Kross – Hazel Eyes
Researching The Blues, 2012
“It’s just perfection to me is so strange … so strange.”
The final track on Researching The Blues is a masterpiece of pop arrangement like a lost track from Imperial Bedroom or Ram. Another gorgeous melody rides on top of the subtly funky rhythm section, with Roy’s rolling toms and Steven’s walking bass giving the bottom an understated swing. In fact, it’s precisely that rock ‘n’ roll bottom that allows the gorgeous pop vocals and melody to stand out up top. This tension is perfectly realized at 1:48, when it breaks down into a simple bass-drums groove, turns into a searing guitar lead with acoustic guitar and what sounds like banjo (?) underneath, and then climaxes with Magical Mystery Tour aplomb. Fun, experimental, catchy, and closes out the best record of 2012 on a high note.
ONE OF THE GOOD ONES
To conclude my hale and hearty endorsement of Redd Kross, here’s their set from this past September’s Musicfest NW in Portland. It’s a great mix of old and new songs and features Jason Shapiro on second guitar instead of Robert Hecker. I’ve listed each track individually, including start time, so don’t say I never did nothing for you.
Redd Kross @ Musicfest NW
Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR
September 8, 2012
01 00:18 – Lady In The Front Row
02 03:49 – Jimmy’s Fantasy
03 07:48 – intro to Stay Away From Downtown
04 08:15 – Stay Away From Downtown (aka Best Song/Guitar Riff of 2012)
05 12:13 – Uglier
06 16:48 – Pretty Please Me [The Quick]
07 20:52 – Cover Band
08 22:46 – Annette’s Got The Hits
09 25:38 – Blow You A Kiss On The Wind (from Wikipedia: A cover of a Boyce & Hart song that Samantha’s cousin, Serena, sang on Bewitched)
10 28:27 – Researching The Blues
11 32:56 – Frosted Flake
12 35:15 – Crazy World