Reversing the indie rock route that so often leads from underground original to major-label redundant, Portland, Oregon’s Dandy Warhols (shame about the name) have grown into a strong, fascinating band after a beginning that promised very little. The quartet’s debut (which is only called Dandys Rule OK in one spot on the artwork; everywhere else it appears to be self-titled) has a modern time-capsule sound that neatly summarizes a good chunk of what had stopped by MTV’s Alternative Nation sporting an English accent in the previous two weeks. The songs are both seriously pretentious — with glib put-on lyrics about LSD, suicide and TV, aren’t-we-clever rock references and the accurately clocked interplanetary monotony of “It’s a Fast-Driving Rave-Up With the Dandy Warhols Sixteen Minutes” — and pretentiously unserious, as in a funny parody entitled “(Tony, This Song Is Called) Lou Weed” and a pointless nothing called “Grunge Betty.” To their credit, the Dandy Warhols tease a variety of cool sounds from Courtney Taylor’s vocal harmonies with keyboard-playing bassist Zia McCabe and his fuzzbox clashes with the band’s other guitarist, Peter Holmstrom. But cleverness is no substitute for real songwriting, and that’s where the fizz goes out here.
“Be-In” and “Boys Better,” which begin The Dandy Warhols Come Down, load up on slow-moving drone that prefigures the Warlocks’ breed of American narco-gazing (given the bands’ future connection, this is either a case of synchronicity or the result of some artistic interrelationship not apparent at the time). But the sensual pleasure of a beatific blur, which pops up a couple more times here, doesn’t conceal the lack of stirring melodies or workable lyrical ideas. “Hard on for Jesus” is as close as the album gets to a creative pinnacle, while Taylor’s vocal restraint adds a moody, ominous feel to “Orange.” But “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth,” which deems heroin “passé” and staked the Dandys to a spot on the groove-rock map, is an undistinguished throwaway, and “Cool as Kim Deal” is another squandered title in need of a worthy song.
The Dandys got a new drummer, Brent DeBoer, and Courtney added a second Taylor to his surname (Taylor-Taylor) in time for Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, but what’s significant is the album’s substantial improvement over the first two. With lots of guest musicians (including slide guitarist Troy Stewart, a DJ and Eric Matthews of Cardinal adding trumpet to two songs), the band locates a groove and fills it with sonic shapes, colors and ideas. Co-produced by Taylor(-Taylor) and mixed by Dave Sardy, the album feels like a collection of ambitions realized, not a stab in the dark. The aural confidence is less cocksure arrogance than comfortable command, as if the band had finally grown into itself. Lines like “I must have a door in the back of my head” (“Solid”) and register clever and provocative, not self-conscious and forced. Although the contrast of roaring rock and quiet looseness with intimations of rap (“Horse Pills,” the Bowiesque “Shakin'”) lead to a Beck-like tenor, there’s a lot more going on here than that. “Cool Scene” wraps itself in a folk-rock shawl while making like the Jesus and Mary Chain. Like the Stones on Let It Bleed, the Dandys cut the druggy modern haze with the boozy vintage drawl of “Country Leaver,” and set up effective contrasts throughout. Engaging, intelligent, richly developed and diverse, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia is a fine entry point to the Dandy Warhols.
Welcome to the Monkeyhouse goes off in a very different direction, dispensing with the trappings of psychedelia for a trip back to the white-funk soul of ’80s dance-rock, using producers Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran and Tony Visconti to summon up the era. With Simon LeBon singing and actress Parker Poesy adding a little mandolin, the album is Beck-like bizarre but not half-bad. On the busy “We Used to Be Friends” and “The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone,” the band reaches for a 21st century summer-of-love party vibe and very nearly grasps it.
With a joked-up introduction by newsman Bill Curtis, Odditorium is the Dandys’ magnum opus, a sprawling, rambling but somehow coherent result of the ambitions developed on previous albums. Along with extravagant song titles (“Did You Make a Song With Otis,” “Colder Than the Coldest Winter Was Cold,” “Love Is the New Feel Awful”), fuzz guitars, horns, banjo, dogs and vocal theatrics add to the general sense of occasion. Although the album ends with the nearly endless “A Loan Tonight,” the capper is “Smoke It,” in which Taylor-Taylor declaims his amused outrage at the state of things over a roiling cauldron of musical busy-ness. Lotsa fun.