Tsar, courtesy TVT.
Sometime in the mid 1990s a lot of bands stopped feeling good. Blame the rap-metal bands, blame Radiohead, but good old fashioned rock party music largely disappeared from the airwaves. If there is any justice in the world (a dubious proposition at best), the new record from Tsar should bring back the heyday of window-open singalong guitar party rock in a way it hasn’t been heard since that album that the guys from Guns ’n’ Roses never recorded with the kids from Green Day.
Tsar are very good at a very old rock and roll tradition: exploring someone else’s sound and making it your own. The band has been kicking around LA since 2000 (and has been a darling of the blogosphere for at least that long, thanks to Tony Pierce’s tireless hype), and releases its first album for TVT this month. So the big question is: does the band live up to the hype?
Do they ever. Band Girls Money is a straight-ahead high octane dose of jet fuelled ear candy. Tsar claim to be descended from glam idols T. Rex and sugar poppers the Archies (and they work the glamdrogynous look in the cover art), but there are equal parts John Lennon and Cracker-era David Lowery in Jeff Whalen’s insanely fluid vocals, and the guitars simultaneously recall the high points of pre-Thin White Duke Bowie, the Ramones, and the Jesus & Mary Chain.
Incidentally, if this reads like a critics’ game of “List the Influences,” that’s because every track invokes a different set of very specific rock references. “Superdeformed” is the most explicit, checking the Beatles in both the chorus (though this writer would dispute the claim that “the Beatles never got you high”) and in Whalen’s Lennonesque “all riiiight,” which sounds like an alternate take of the chorus for “Revolution.” But other tracks hit different reference points: “Straight” plays like the Ramones doing a “One Tree Hill” soundtrack song (in a good way), “Wanna Get Dead” has the aforementioned JnMC vibe (specifically, “Coast to Coast” from Automatic), and the rhythm section intro leading into the sustained guitar note that opens “The Love Explosion” plays for all the world like a sped-up version of the opening to Radiohead’s “There There.” But the songs are all clearly original—the reference points are there as hommages, not as imitations, and for the most part if you blink you miss them. You know, aside from the part where Tsar are reinventing the whole glam genre.
Then there’s Whalen’s lyrics… They aren’t deep, mostly cocky cock-rock (“He’s got the band, the girls, and the money”, “It’s hard to stand up with all the girls on your lap”), but they would probably be a lot of fun to sing along with if the band included a lyrics sheet.
Which is one of my only two complaints about this disc. The other, the DRM on it that prevented it from going on my iPod so I could take it with me everywhere, is a little less forgivable. But the rock is so good, I’m almost over that. And if you know me, you know that’s saying a lot.
If Spoon’s Gimme Fiction is this summer’s party album choice for the intelligent indie pop fan, Tsar’s Band Girls Money is this summer’s party album choice for everybody else—and for the intelligent indie pop fan when he thinks no one else is looking. This band is some serious rock’n’roll fun.