Whatever else might be said about them, Primal Scream is not a band that can be neatly labeled. Since their 1987 debut Sonic Flower Groove, Bobby Gillespie and the various incarnations of the band have skirted between jangly psychedelica, blues-based rock and acid house industrial with a seemingly flagrant disregard towards fanbase expectations. After single-handedly bringing acid house to the mainstream with 1991's Screamadelica, they retreated to a seventies sound with Give Out But Don't Give Up — with commercially dismal results. The techno-jazz infused Vanishing Point followed, marking a slow return to the house sound that had served them well on Screamadelica.
Primal Scream apparently knew who buttered their bread, as evidenced by 2000's follow-up XTRMNTR, in which they jumped on the "where is Trent Reznor when you need him?" bandwagon. The band ventured more deeply into this territory with Evil Heat, albeit with a more T-Rex inspired groove and a cast of celebrity guests. Gillespie and company, for all purposes had lost that subversive edge that had kept them afloat all those years.
Subversion comes in many forms, however. Riot City Blues, Primal Scream's eighth album (and their first on Columbia) marks a radical departure from the techno-throb beats that have been their signature for the past decade. This is an album of bare-bones rock unlikely to set well with their club-driven core base of fans.
For the rest of us, it's an unexpected treat. Riot City Blues is a paean to pre-punk blues-based britpop and a possible indicator of the next direction Gillespie is taking the band. This is guitar-driven often anthemic rock and roll that takes its cues as much from MC5 as the Stones. "The 99th Floor" is reminiscent of Iggy and the Stooges at their zenith, while "We're Gonna Boogie" conjures up memories of both T-Rex and Canned Heat, due in no small part to Martin Duffy's loping harmonica .
This is an album that performs sleight of hand at every turn, thumbing its nose at genre restrictions. A listen of the single "Country Girl" only might make the listener think Primal Scream had reverted to a good time honky tonk sound. But "When the Bomb Drops," a blistering indictment of drug addiction centered around Will Sergeant's swirling guitar strains, pinballs the work in an entirely different direction. "Little Death" languishes in a psychedelic haze and "Hell's Comin' Down" goes off in a bayou-tinged tangent, supplemented by Warren Ellis's fiddle.
The one constant in Riot City Blues is its staunch refusal to play to type. Some may decry Primal Scream's effort here as a betrayal of the acid house movement. The truth of the matter, however, is that this may be the core element of a new phase for the band. Gillespie has reached a stage in his life where he has realized that the most subversive form of expression is in the nuance of the expression. Then again, a case could be made that Primal Scream is pandering to the changing winds of popular taste.
The truth lies somewhere between. Riot City Blues is by no means going to be a rave favorite. It is what it is — a homage to the punk roots that spawned acid house. As Alex told his droogs, "Old ways is best ways."
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