Of all the overused, overemphasized, overrated terms in modern indie music, “honesty” must be close to the top. An unfortunate outgrowth of the 1980s’ integrity-obsessed first wave of alternative rock (in the same way that gonorrhea can be an unfortunate outgrowth of sex), “honesty” has served as many a wannabe critic’s highest standard of quality, its absence the cruelest and most demeaning of epithets.
Take a perfectly good, kick-ass rock’n'roll band, who maybe just happen to like a little semi-ironic Spandex in their stage gear, and stack them against some mopey, half-competent, teeth-gnashingly earnest troubadour with a tousled coif – guess whose schtick is more “honest?” If you belong to the cult of authenticity, your answer is obvious: whichever one Pitchfork hated less. And that’s a damn shame, because if the New York Dolls (“indie rockers” long before such a term existed) taught us anything, it’s that good music can be taken seriously no matter how deep it plants its tongue in the cheek.
The Eagles of Death Metal are about as “honest” as the mustache sported by frontman Jesse Hughes – or the 1970s used car salesman said ‘stache most closely resembles. They make rock music with no pretensions to art, or even staid garage-chic sensibilities. There’s nary a song on their sophomore effort, Death by Sexy, that isn’t about dancing, fucking, or some combination of the two. Hell, their album cover is even a parody of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers - and everybody knows that nine out of ten indie kids prefer Between the Buttons. But here’s the deal: “honest” or not, Death by Sexy happens to be one of the best straight-up rock albums of 2006 so far, and I can’t think of anything more honest – in the real sense of the word – than that.
In their most defining moments, Hughes and the Eagles (including Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and Brody Dalle of erstwhile pop-punk act the Distillers) mine the best elements of classic radio rock with a genuine sense of pleasure. Cock-rock riffage (“Don’t Speak (I Came to Make a BANG!)”), rhythm section breakdowns (“I Like to Move in the Night”), even falsetto paeans to barely-legal conquests (“I Gotta Feeling (Just Nineteen)”); it’s all here, and most of the time, the loving sense of pastiche with which it’s executed – the wide-eyed, yet knowing desire to “rawk” – makes it sound better than it did in the arenas.
But for all their proficiency in the area, EODM aren’t just playing genre karaoke. The playful shake and stomp of “Solid Gold,” Hughes’ note-perfect Lux Interior impression on “Chase the Devil,” even an out-of-left-field stab at acoustic country-blues called “Bag o’ Miracles,” all point to an impressively wide musical range and contribute to the album’s loose, fun, freewheeling atmosphere. “Fun” is the key word here: it’s the secret to the Eagles of Death Metal’s artistic success, and the reason why almost everything on Death by Sexy works. If it’s fun, Hughes, Homme and company will do it, and chances are they’ll do it well.
Once in a while, of course, their more half-baked ideas will fall a little fast. “The Ballad of Queen Bee and Baby Duck,” a Beefheart-flavored attempt at self-mythology about romantic couple Homme and Dalle, wears thin after just a few listens, while “Eagles Goth” leans too far toward parody, all muffled vocals and fuzzed-out guitar with little substance to back it up. But minor setbacks like these can’t keep the Eagles from blowing away the competition when it comes to pure, simple, party-ready rock. And if a description like that will make the “honesty” Nazis turn up their noses, just tell ‘em not to let the door hit their ass on the way out.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins