Often you’ll read critics review new artists with a degree of difficulty that no band, save a select dozen or so since rock n’ rolls inception sometime in the mid 1950s, could have ever hoped to achieve. In the reviews, often exciting new artists are compared unfavorably to other bands, as if to say that to bare an influence of another is to be derivative and therefor unoriginal. These critics fail to realize that even the bands they use for comparison most certainly had reference points as well, plus, the very genius of rock n’ roll as a form is just how much subtle (and vast) variation we’ve heard within a relatively tight sonic template. With most acts featuring the simple drum, bass and guitar line-up we’ve nevertheless gotten millions of different songs and lyrical passages. But, and the point can’t be overstated, many great songs are great because they bare striking resemblance to other songs. Their brilliance is either as counter-point echo (as I said last post, ‘Just Like Honey’ is wonderful, in part because it’s showing how different a spin on ‘Be My Baby’ can be had using roughly the same parts) or shoulders-in-arms (the Jam copied the Who* and the Small Faces because they were part of the same Mod subculture, albeit more than a decade later), or as in today’s example, giving a nice contemporary reworking to old classics to give the kids something to bop around too. Not an altogether bad thing as the classics can’t be preformed live anymore and a vital underground scene is essential in any city, even if all the clubs are filled with retreads and copycats (not that today’s topic is remotely that though).
Take for example, 2015’s White Reaper Does It Again by Louisville, Kentucky’s White Reaper, one of my favorite albums of last year. It’s a thrilling blast of punky pop, not unlike dozens of bands (though probably more like hundreds) before them dating all the way back to punks birth sometime in and around 1976/77. But, rather than look at them as the exciting purveyors they are of joyous music, the regular critic in review after review can’t just judge it as fun, sugar laden and somewhat empty brilliance. Pointing out how much it sounds like the Dickies, or the Ramones or fill in the blank three chord pop fury becomes the game. Never coming to the point that those bands earth shaking records titled the globe off its axis because they allowed so many kids to go out from a seemingly permanent state of boredom to one of sudden, anxious excitement. That White Reaper’s new record is so echo-inducing seems to be the point, with the additional context that (a) these ‘echoes’ are becoming fewer and fewer between, and (b) creating an echo this propulsive is hardly an easy feat.
Track 10, ‘Wolf Trap Hotel’, is case in point. The rips are clear and if not, White Reaper leaves us all these breadcrumbs so that we can follow our way to their origins. The opening riff is a clear ‘One Track Mind’ homage, that great Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers track from their seminal LAMF record**, then the entire vocal reading seems to be indebted to Jack White, specifically the first few garage laden White Stripe records; hell, as it goes deeper the melody starts resembling something even more specific: ‘Hotel Yorba’. The lead single from White Blood Cells, the White Stripes third record that fully broke them into the mainstream (‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ would be their follow up single to ‘Hotel Yorba’, and with its LEGO animated video by Michel Gondry prove to be an MTV smash), ‘Hotel Yorba’ is a textured piece of almost ‘garage balladry’, to which White Reaper openly evoke here. The titles sharing ‘Hotel’ is the obvious connection, but distilled together with ‘One Track Mind’ the band captures two distant pasts, though not altogether different ones, and sees it coalesce into one wonderful whole. With the added infectious keyboard part, neither the Heartbreakers or the White Stripes had that, we’re probably echoing even another era or two (mainly, the protopunk garage comps from the 1960s).
If I could be given one more reference point in closing, consider the Jam’s ‘Non-Stop Dancing’ from their 1977 debut, In the City. They were a band of nothing but early (pre-1967) Who ripoffs, or so that’s what everyone at the time would have had you believe. Except those in the trenches dancing with glee to the glorious noise. The point of the song is the entirety of the message; our release of dancing and motion—that to an outsider could just be inarticulate ‘having fun’—is counter to an entire conservative apparatus. Rocks central message was youthful exuberance and rebellion, only dulled when it became boorish and decidingly ‘adult’. If the tunes work, all the acts mentioned here would probably argue, what else matters?
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*speaking of the Who, White Reaper Does it Again‘s fourth track, ‘On Your Mind’ updates the Who’s Mod single ‘The Kids are Alright’ to highly inventive affect; its melody builds evoke Townshend’s evocative beauty, but the surrounding parts are all remarkably different. It reverberates to a knowing ear, but works to throw us off the scent as well.
**if you needed more on this point that homages (or out right thefts) aren’t a bad thing, consider that Johnny Thunders, when sufficiently inebriated (which, with him was more often than not) would do whole shows in the late 1970s where, before going into songs, he’d tell the audience where he’d gotten all the guitar parts from. It’d have been a great time; both seeing an artist nakedly honest, and flipping the entire ‘creativity-must-be-virgin-and-clean’ paradigm on its stupid head.