If one were to review three decades of California rock, circa 1965 to 1995 and reverse-engineer it into a single entity, dada might as well be the result. The Los Angeles trio borrows the Beach Boys’ open vocal harmonies, the Eagles’ casual eye for decadence, the Doors’ bleary-eyed paranoia, some Jefferson Airplane surrealism, ’70s folk-rock jangle and the cynical humor of X, stirring them all into a stew of punchy new wave guitar with some rolling East LA funk.
dada emerged with a splash in 1992 with the single, “Dizz Knee Land,” a snappily sung tune about anomie and media oversaturation, capped by the TV pitch of newly anointed sports heroes: “I’m going to Disneyland!” While hardly the best song on Puzzle, “Dizz Knee Land” became the band’s signature. The snarky line “I just flipped off President George / now I’m going to Disneyland” would carry them through two President Georges.
The prevailing sensibility of Puzzle is skepticism about the Southern California dream and its undersides. Michael Gurley (guitar/lead vocals), Joie Calio (bass/lead vocals) and Phil Leavitt (drums) all write: a strong set of musical tools that also lends the group a propensity for facelessness. Two-part harmonies and complex acoustic guitar lines are an important part of the debut’s charms. “Mary Sunshine Rain” and “Surround” are impressively textured and contemplative; “Timothy” is a memorable picture of a neglected child retreating into a fantasy life. Elsewhere the record is more assertive, if self-loathing, with an emphasis on power-pop. “Dim” and “Who You Are” are driven by an anger that’s directed alternately at the song’s audience and the singers themselves. “I could set this cold blue world ablaze / but I could never replace who you are.” “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” embraces the noir side of Los Angeles’s self-mythologizing with mysterious hitchhikers, stolen cars and drugs, all the way to a Jack Webb reference.
After the debut, and a high-profile tour opening for Sting, dada began a bout of almost comically bad luck. IRS was floundering on the release of American Highway Flower and the songs simply weren’t as strong. Gurley’s displays a growing degree of political paranoia, notably in “Scum,” where he adopts the voice of what he clearly sees as the country’s Limbaugh-listening, illegal-immigrant-baiting right wing. The sense of disgust prevailing over “Pretty Girls Make Graves” and “Feel Me Don’t You [Fucking Touch Me]” probably alienated a lot of listeners, too. “All I Am” was an acceptable lead single, but the falloff is steep after that. The sweet harmonizing on “8 Track” is notable, but American Highway Flower feels too long by at least twenty minutes.
El Subliminoso received next to zero promotion, and IRS shut down shortly after its release. The music is better than on American Highway Flower, but scarcely more ingratiating. Many of the pretty harmonies and melodies are downplayed to serve a harder-hitting rhythm section, and the band sounds altogether more rockist. Making drugs a big theme of the album is not to dada’s benefit (“I Get High,” “Sick in Santorini,” and the somewhat sweeter “A Trip With My Dad”). But “Bob the Drummer” is a great bit about trying to buy a set of drums from a retired jazz percussionist, and “Spirit of 2009” is a dystopian political fantasy seemingly adopted from Margaret Atwood, with Bible-thumping authoritarianism and technological militarism. Now heard from the reality of 2009, it makes an eyebrow-raising cautionary tale.
Reversing a trajectory of diminishing returns, dada rejuvenated itself artistically (if not commercially) on dada in 1998. The record has cleverness and melody in spades, plus it sounds great, thanks to producer Danny Kortchmar and mixer Bob Clearmountain. Deep bass, bigger-than-life guitars and crackling snare create an impression bigger than a three-piece. If dada Is unabashed about its influences, at least they’re good ones: the interpolation of War’s “Lowrider” in “California Gold” helps convey an ethos about the Los Angeles melting pot. There’s still loathing in the obsessive “Baby Really Loves Me” and the bitter “Sweet Dark Angel,” but the pop hooks are back. The moment that could sell the album by itself comes about 38 seconds into “Beautiful Turnback Time Machine.” The song, which begins with a furious guitar rave-up like Puzzle‘s “Posters,” is suddenly broken by a simple kick-drum break into a three-part Beatlesque harmony chorus. The song is about wanting to go back in time to set things right: a fine motif for a band eager to reestablish itself.
A 2004 tour yielded an authorized “bootleg” that showcases dada’s strong back catalogue (and a weakness for overlong drum solos) and material for a new studio album, How to Be Found.
Best of the I.R.S. Years picks heavily from Puzzle but shows scant interest in El Subliminoso.