Cross-dressing singer Tyson Todd Meade crawled from the wreckage of Norman, Oklahoma’s Defenestration to form Chainsaw Kittens as a low-rent Bowie-cum-New-York-Dolls glam unit. Displaying the rudiments of the quartet’s sound (romping, guitar-goosed melodies, theatrically fey vocals), Violent Religion is a promising first album with some memorable tunes (“Here at the End,” the Syd Barrett-like “Feel Like a Drugstore”) and spirited playing throughout. The Anglophiliac sheen of Meade’s vocals, as well as his sharply developed pop sense, serves to reinforce the aesthetic differences between the Kittens and most of their mid-American indie-rock peers.
Recorded as a quintet with a new rhythm section and a second guitarist joining co-founder Mark Metzger, Flipped Out in Singapore (produced by Butch Vig) ups the brute force quotient. Amid the overdriven guitars, Meade continues to assert his I’m-a-freak-and-I-dig-it persona on songs like “High in High School” and “Shannon’s Fellini Movie.” The gloriously transcendent “Never to Be Found” demonstrates Meade’s genuine gift for writing an affecting power ballad.
High in High School reprises two songs from the album and includes a cover of Harry Nilsson’s schlock classic, “One.” The seven-song Angel on the Range, recorded with a third rhythm section and Metzger gone, showcases the band in prime, hard-rocking form, with brief forays into churning psychedelia (“Lazy Little Dove”) and willful silliness (“Little Fishies,” sung by remaining guitarist Trent Bell).
Pop Heiress is the Kittens’ finest album, thanks to a combination of strong hooks, masterful production (by John Agnello) and the confidence that goes with such assets. Beginning with the raging blast of “Sore on the Floor,” the Kittens careen through twelve memorable tunes, ranging from the romantically wistful “Loneliest China Place” to the sleekly propulsive “Silver Millionaire.” Pop Heiress should have lifted the Kittens out of the indie-rock ghetto once and for all; instead, the band was dropped shortly after its release. Go figure.
The rhythm section on Singapore and High School — drummer Aaron Preston and bassist Clint McBay — went on, singly, to join For Love Not Lisa, a band formed by singer/guitarist Mike Lewis and guitarist Miles (just Miles) in Oklahoma City but nurtured in Southern California. Defying its title, Merge is an accomplished but eclectic record that catapults easily from mersh grunge (“Softhand”) to swoony dream-pop (“Travis Hoffman”), psychedelic recitation (“Just a Phase”) to arena-scaled rock (“Mother’s Faith”). The quartet can’t seem to land on any lily pad for more than three minutes, but nifty items like the fiery power pop of “Traces” makes the constant head-spinning worthwhile.
Information Superdriveway takes a narrower path through terse, taut tuneful rock with clangy guitars and hustling rhythms. A glaring Replacements influence coming off the Goo Goo Dolls makes “Coming Into Focus” a surging treat, while a striking Fugazi design sharpens the band’s knives to fine effect on “Seasick.” If a bit short on clear-cut personality (ironically, the diversity of Merge reveals more of the band’s own), it’s still an exciting blast grounded in strong songwriting and controlled fury.