So. Here we have the debut disc by Les Hell On Heels. It’s being marketed as garage/punk. I can sort of see the garage angle, but in more of a power pop way. If that makes any sense.
Garage rock is, by its very nature, a conservative form of music. The idea behind it is to re-create the sounds made by (generally) sexually frustrated adolescents 40-some years ago. To someone unfamiliar with the genre, I’d imagine that sounds like a recipe for staleness. When it’s done well, though, it is truly exhilarating. It’s rough and angry and sweaty and loud and rife with sublimated (and not-so-sublimated) unga-bunga. Primal rock. Troglodyte rock. Ur-rock, if you will.
Sometimes, though, a band will pay too much attention to the trappings of the genre – y’know, getting the right look – at the expense of the reason that look even exists in the first place: the music.* Back in the day, such bands were called “posers” or “poseurs”, depending on how pretentious the accuser wished to be. I’m not sure what you kids today are calling it – “fronting”, perhaps?
And… well, it’s like this: the band works the worn-out “tuff rocker chick” cliché straight into the ground, through the molten center of the earth and back out again on the other side somewhere in the South Pacific, only to blast off into the deep black interstellar void. (Cue spooky music.) Perhaps they’ll land on some desolate planet where rock & roll is an unknown quantity. They’ll probably do well there. Here on Earth, the cold hard pointy truth is that there’s not much in the way of originality, fun or excitement on Les Hell On Heels.
The band is your basic two-guitar-bass-drum unit; as such, they’re competent. This is what my Ma would call “damning with faint praise”, and she’d be right. Mere competence is not enough. Any band that practices long enough will eventually either become competent or kill each other. (It’s one of the basic laws of physics. What are they teaching in the schools these days?) Now, a good vocalist can take a competent band into another realm altogether. Sadly, Paula Monarch’s contrived, affected “kitten with claws” vocal style swiftly becomes borderline excruciating. If I had to single out the biggest flaw of this disc, it would be her singing. Her attempts at the bad-girl pout come off as fake as Britney’s décolletage. Here’s a tip: unless you’re James Brown, the word “baby” should never, ever be pronounced “bay-buh”; to do so only marks you as an utter tool. Robert Plant learned that one the hard way.
What sets Monarch’s annoying style in sharp relief is when bassist Chela LaRue and guitarist Katie Rose take turns at the mic on “Broke Down Love” and “Snake Eyes”, respectively.** Either one would make a much better choice as front-woman. Rose would not be out of place in a decent punk band; LaRue’s approach is somewhat tentative and her pitch wavers here and there, but at least it’s honest. Flawed but truthful beats polished and false every single time. I shouldn’t have to be the one to point this out.
Then again, I’m guessing that these songs might work better in a live context, as Jack Endino’s production is curiously flat. For example, the quasi-surf guitar break on “My Kind of Trouble” gets stranded in the mix; it should be right up front, yet it gets the same weight as the rhythm guitar. As the always-perceptive Science Girl put it, “it sounds as if the band is having a tired day”. Then again, maybe he gave the band the production values they wanted. I don’t know. What I do know is that garage rock needs to have the rough edges left intact, lest it cease to be garage at all and plummet into mall-punk territory.
Ultimately, LHOH are working the same side of the street as The Runaways, The Pandoras, The Donnas, and countless other “all-girl” bands have done for the past umpteen years or so. The Heels, however, don’t quite pull it off. Here’s hoping they can get it together before they hit the studio again.
*Well, that and the unga-bunga, too. Rock & roll is always, at some point way deep down inside, about sex. Anyone who forgets that needs to go take another gander at the footage of J. Hendrix enjoying carnal knowledge of his guitar in Monterey Pop. He wasn’t selling lighter fluid, kids. But I digress.
**I’m guessing on those attributions, actually. They could very well be just the reverse. Since Monarch and LaRue started the band and co-wrote a couple of the tunes, I assumed that LaRue would take first crack at lead vox other than Monarch’s. If I’ve got that mixed up, I extend my most sincere apology. My point is that Monarch is not the best possible choice for lead vocals.