When I was contacted by The End Records to write a review on the Dandy Warhol's latest album This Machine, I had no idea they were still recording new music. I certainly did not know that the Dandys now shared a label with Fatboy Slim, Badly Drawn Boy, The Prodigy, and a bountiful cornucopia of Finnish black metal groups. This raises questions. What does it mean to say that Badly Drawn Boy is a "badly drawn genius?" What ties these bands together? Who is "Cradle of Filth?" Krokus is still around? Who am I? Perhaps this is why This Machine, the latest Dandy album, is so unlike their others. I imagine they must have composed it in a blasted catacomb while Karl Sanders, "the driving force behind South Carolina's Egyptian-themed death metal titans, Nile [?]," boxed their ears with a pair of electric Turkish lutes. (That is a thing).
I'm showing my genre bias here, so I'll stop, but it might be fitting that an album so out of place with its progenitors would be released by a record label to which the Dandys have seem very little spiritual relation. Of course, The End Records is not the Dandys' only affiliation; they do have their own label, the self-funded Beat the World. And their old sugar daddy, Capitol Records, now represents artists as radically unlike each other as J-Lo and the Decemberists. They also represent David Guetta and the Beach Boys, two bands whose opposing fan ideologies would, if placed in close proximity to the other, cause an antimatter cascade that would result in the collapse of the multiverse.
So perhaps this is not significant.
As I've previously stated, I like the Dandy Warhols when they are unabashedly obnoxious, dilettantish, and inconsistent in their instrumentation and genre-troping. The puns (the band's name, for one), the knock-you-over-the-head lyrics, all the self-aware gaudery -- it is all so satisfying when they push the throttle to full. A good example of this is their 2008 release Earth to the Dandy Warhols, in which the Dandys travel to Outer Space (IN THEIR MINDS!), which was dismissed as "achingly dull" by The Guardian at the time. It was a high-energy, eccentric, thoroughly strange album, but at no point was it dull. Though it may pull from the same inspiration pool as Earth to the Dandy Warhols, This Machine lacks that sweeping, barely-reined implausibility. Where E2DW had a theme throughout, one of a vehicle out of control (a reference, maybe, to their recent departure from Capitol Records), This Machine seems to be held together by wry sobriety and self-conscious aging.
Typically, I get swept up in the whiplash malleability of Taylor-Taylor's voice; his zig-zag from breathy croon to hillbilly twang to rock-god swagger and back again in Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is part of what makes that album one of my all-time favorites. When he really means and feels what he's singing, especially if he is in Badass Mode (check out this gem), he has a very captivating presence. Taylor-Taylor inhabits a lot of personas from song to song, and album to album. But in This Machine, no matter the figment being portrayed, he hews to the monotone.
In "I am Free," it sounds like he is reading the lyrics from a placard, when he should be shouting it from a precipice, and in "Rest Your Head," he sounds like Bono cooing from of a prison window. In "SETI vs. The Wow! Signal," a track with a great hook and some classically meaty percussion, he attempts a whoop and you can almost see him slump to the floor from the effort. "Enjoy Yourself" is the most blatant. He growls, "I used to be shitty/When I used to be pretty/I was the prettiest little shitty in the whole New York City." Yes, he's not a cultural icon anymore, and perhaps he never was, in the sense he wanted to be -- but it's hard to make resignation sexy.
The response to this album was generally underwhelming. Now, there are a few songs I don't love, but this is in no way a terrible album. The album certainly does not deserve the gleeful Calvinist flagellation given them by Pitchfork writer Stuart Berman. Only a Pitchfork writer could make a football reference -- "[this album] will make you feel like a touchdown-bound wide receiver who drops the ball before hitting the end zone" -- in a broader tone that evokes an image of Norman Mailer shaking his erudite, disheveled head slowly, sadly. The Dandys may be masters of hyperbole, but at least they didn't need to spend 8 years on an MFA in Ethnomusicology to get there.
As usual, I have to forgive them their trip-ups. Even though we all get what he was trying to do with "SETI" -- the excitability and gullibility of man in the face of vastness, new age throwback commentary, etc. etc. -- even though it has very little to do thematically with the rest of the album, I enjoyed it. "Don't look up it's the Wow! Signal/Hovering over the clouds" -- please don't rhyme signal with "people" -- "...people." -- God damnit, CTT! -- "Towering over the church and the steeple!" -- What? ...Oh, CTT! I can't stay angry with you for long.
The instrumentation in the album is incredible, the production very clean. "Sad Vacation" and "The Autumn Carnival" are great cuts. I especially love the addition of brass to the ensemble. Though CTT may sound tired in "I am Free," the triumphal build and blare of the trumpets make the song bright and roadtrip-worthy. "Alternative Power to the People" grooves too briefly, but still makes an excellent interlude, harkening back to the psychedelic drone the Dandys have always done so well in the past. Likewise, "Don't Shoot, She Cried" weaves layers of harmonica, synth, and acoustic guitar into a shimmering ambient moment. I can almost see the bullet leaving the muzzle in slow motion, a short instant of suspended impossibility before reality comes crashing in. This is the kind of sonic storytelling I love from psychedelica, and they told the tale very well here.
I would much rather experience a concept album from any of the above songs than a moody, stutter-step ode to maturity. Don't give up, Dandys. Your performance two weeks back at the historic Fillmore was slammin'. Channel the energy of that crowd, which would fill any venue to see you. We still love your music. Screw maturity -- now that the eyes of the world are no longer on you, you don't have to impress anyone. Go wild. The next time you're in the Bay, I'll be there.
Follow Brian Holton Henderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/henderslap