The Deathray Davies, The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist (Idol Records)
The label of “power-pop” like all labels that exist as a shortcut to thinking is inaccurate and unflattering in the way it casts its net so wide. Still, it is inarguable that there is a great number of bands with more Cheap Trick, Big Star and Replacements records in their collections than sense. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but let’s get real, most power pop bands don’t come within miles of sounding like their heroes. Or if they do, they somehow lose the point that they’re supposed to sound like themselves. The Deathray Davies understand that and in lieu of attempting a pale imitation, the group crafts a sound of their own in songs and production.
The first thing you notice about The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist is its unique sound. The band wasn’t afraid to add a little fuzz to the recording and, in fact, seems to make a point of it. This is a remarkably noisy record. Every mic was running a little hot. This makes a tremendous impact on the whole sound but specifically does great service to the drums’ sound. The hot levels on the percussion make it sound closer to the fuzz tone of the guitars and keyboards. Every song is steeped in warm fuzz even when there’s nothing more than a guitar and voice.
The Deathray Davies have a healthy dose of keyboards mixed in with their guitars. And they do their best to make sure the keys sound just as fuzzy as the guitars. Squawks and crackles are de rigeur for the Davies. Songs like “Square” and “Jack Never Crashes” bang and pound through their hooks with warbling, squealing keyboards accentuating the ups and downs.
On the subject of hooks, there are plenty. Yet the Davies have also realized that the best pop songs are done in less than three minutes. Rather than trying to tell their whole life story in the verses, the Davies rhyme a couplet or two and take off to the huge chorus. The hook of the first line of “Jack Never Crashes” smacks of every good-times radio rock song — “I’m doing 60 in a 30, got your 45 stuck in my head” — before plowing into the chorus. Here, The Deathray Davies demonstrate remarkable confidence and ingenuity when they deconstruct the forms of their songs. After “Jack Never Crashes” smashes into its first chorus, it takes off into an extended verse with different instrumentation, the chorus music without words, a bridge and solo before returning to repeat the first verse and chorus. It’s a great form that isn’t unfamiliar but avoids the conventional wisdom of “repeat the chorus ’til it sticks.”
This isn’t to say that the Deathray Davies’s record is an experiment in pop deconstruction. “Clever Found a Name” relies on familiar formula and secures itself in its big beats and loud guitars enough to allow a voice to soar over them in the choruses. Likewise, “I Never Thought Today Would Be So Strange” uses the simple, yet time-honored tradition of loud-soft dynamicism. Quiet verses lead to big and loud choruses.
“Chinese Checkers and Devo Records,” the last track, is a tour de force of fuzzy noises, loud drums, big hooks and great production. With suitable enthusiasm, it wraps up what could easily be considered a perfect power pop album. There are tracks that aren’t as great as others to be sure, but the overall impact of the album is fantastic. This is the way rock records should be made — noisy, catchy, and fun.