March 18, 2004

Pawned Hearts and White Blood Cells

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Jack White is the Michael Jackson of garage rock. He befriends young ones and then does nasty things to them. Case in point: The Von Bondies. White finds them, puts them on the now-classic compilation, The Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, gets them a record deal, produces their first album, and then gets arrested for grabbing the lead singer’s face, spitting on it, and punching it seven times. Yes, Jack White is a sick, sad shell of a man with pasty skin, hobo hair, and an eerie resemblance to the King of Pop, but he still knows how to find good bands. The Von Bondies, thankfully free of their Ike-Turner-abusive Svengali, have staked their claim to the “best white music from Detroit” title with their new album, Pawn Shoppe Heart.

From the first power chord to the last yelp, Jason Stollsteimer shows that the best revenge is living well and rocking out. His throat has clearly and mercifully escaped White’s savage attack. Musically, Pawn Shoppe Heart is much more White Blood Cells than Elephant, but the Von Bondies escape the “Detroit Music Scene” stereotype by switching styles on each song. The Von Bondies throw in hand claps, stuttered syllables, brooding grooves, Kinks riffs, and psychedelic feedback to the typical garage cacophony. Improving on their low-fi debut album, the production finds the perfect balance between clean and gritty. The sound engineering rightly puts Jason Stollsteimer’s vocals at the front of the mix, and his growls and sneers make up for the banal lyrics. Almost every song is just north of two minutes, and the entire album is only 40 minutes long. Such a short tracklist allows no filler material to creep in. Each song rightfully earns its place on the album, enhancing the replay value; there are no superfluous tracks.

“Not That Social,” the best song on the album, has bassist Carrie Smith take lead vocals while Stollsteimer joins her on the chorus. As the snare drum pounds out a mechanical rhythm, lyrics like, “You’re not that social / Just a good drinker” spill out behind the swirling guitar riffs and distorted chords. Smith and Stollsteimer even do a Randy Bachman impersonation while singing, “You’re d-d-drowning.” The song ends with a slinky moan fading into the distance, not a Jack-White-you’ve-brutalized-me-to-the-point-of-death moan, but a we-just-showed-you-up-with-a-better-album moan. If only Michael Jackson’s victims could beat their attacker at his own game.

Evading blues-pedophilia rock, Pawn Shoppe Heart mixes the force of The Hives with the creativity of The New Pornographers. “Try A Little Tenderness” is the exception. Perhaps a mid-fight plea to their former producer, the reworking of a classic blues song throws in minor chord changes with background bordello piano licks. Stollsteimer begs the listener to “hold her / squeeze her / never leave her” and throws more groans on the end of his lines than the lead singer from The Goo Goo Dolls.

“C’mon C’mon,” the leadoff single, catches The Von Bondies at their most mainstream. Pixies-like, soft-to-loud dynamics, and a good hook produce the best fake Nirvana song since “Get Free.” Stollsteimer screams about the fluidity of time while the band shakes and shimmies behind a three-chord assault. Sure, it’s derivative, but it’s still fun.

In their first album on a major label, The Von Bondies embody what separates rock from pop. Whether they sold out or just needed big bucks to hire protection from jealous rivals is irrelevant. The Von Bondies still don’t care what you think, and they don’t want you to care what they think either; in fact, they don’t care — period. Even the dullness of Stollsteimer’s name works toward their advantage; nobody with a name like Stollsteimer could hang on in the bright lights of pop. This image of no image is coupled with a sense of immediacy throughout the album. Almost every song talks about the now, the effervescent present that rock is supposed to seize.

And while the album is not a thematic work or treatise on what is wrong with music, this attitude of Friday-night cigarettes and rock’n’roll blaring from a battered car permeates Pawn Shoppe Heart. The Von Bondies don’t make music for the morning after, but for the night of.

Archived article by Will Lanier