Australia has produced few bands as crazily entertaining as Sydney’s Hoodoo Gurus, whose roots intersect with the early Scientists. Who else would dedicate their debut album to, among other pop culture giants, American TV sitcom stars Larry Storch and Arnold Ziffel? That their music is an invigorating combination of cow-punk, garage-rock and demi-psychedelia only makes it better fun. “(Let’s All) Turn On” is as good as any Lyres song; “In the Echo Chamber” has the mad abandon of prime Cramps; “I Want You Back” is winsome teen-angst power pop with a deadly hook; “I Was a Kamikaze Pilot” resembles the Fleshtones and displays a brilliant sense of absurd humor. (Think about that title again…) Stoneage Romeos is a great record.
Mars Needs Guitars! boasts a hip title, spiffy cover art, characteristically kitschy thank-yous and a top-notch opening tune in “Bittersweet.” But while the band’s spirit is as willing as ever, an ill-considered mix and several clumsy arrangements hamper the rough’n’ready delivery, losing the melodies in the impressive raveup playing. Such promising numbers as the title track, “Like Wow — Wipeout” and the countryfied “Hayride to Hell” don’t come off the way they should; the Gurus can definitely make better albums than this.
The improved Blow Your Cool! still isn’t quite it, despite lively electric sound, plenty of offhand wit, crisp, energetic playing and hardy melodies. Increased emphasis on vocal harmonies distinguishes Side One; backup by the Bangles, blending nicely with songwriter Dave Faulkner’s appealing voice on “What’s My Scene” and “Good Times,” helps put those tunes over the top. The fine “I Was the One” takes a similar tack without them. Lest anyone misjudge the Gurus’ intentions, the record quickly turns (and stays) a lot tougher. Wild geographically minded cave stompers like “Where Nowhere Is,” “Hell for Leather,” “In the Middle of the Land” and “On My Street” are happily hard-nosed and noisy; “Party Machine,” which closes the LP, is virtually a tribute to the Fleshtones.
Patient fans were finally rewarded bigtime with the spiffy Magnum Cum Louder, a confident, catchy collection that cuts the stylistic affectations to focus all of the group’s strengths on songs that stick. The classic power-pop trick of mixing acoustic and electric rhythm guitars enlivens the album, especially “Come Anytime,” an unbelievably catchy blast of layered vocals, guitars and handclaps that springs from the same well as “I Want You Back.” Elsewhere, Brad Shepherd unleashes a firestorm of raucous guitar energy, slamming out AC/DC riffrock in “Axegrinder,” raving up “I Don’t Know Anything” and, for contrast, adding atmospheric, barely controlled feedback to the haunting, stately “Shadow Me.”
Having perfected their rollicking, genre-bending blend of kitschy garage-rock, power pop, psychedelia, surf and winsome balladry, the band went up against the early-’90s wave of angst and despair that swept away feel-good nostalgia and lost sight of its strengths. They began making records that didn’t do its talent justice. By the end of the ’90s, they were history.
Kinky is confident and proficient band, a batch of excellent songs but no new ideas. “Head in the Sand” starts things off on a poundingly aggressive note, while the ultra-pretty “Castles in the Air” has one of those chill-inducing hooks so rarely found in contemporary pop. Despite the album’s meaningless title and the self- explanatory “Miss Freelove ’69” (on which the group gamely indulges in retro flower-power shtick), Kinky is an innocuous delight.
But apparently not delightful enough to keep them signed. Singer/guitarist Dave Faulkner took advantage of the band’s recording hiatus to produce the Fleshtones’ Powerstance! (thereby validating long-held perceptions of the Gurus’ stylistic debt to the New York crew). In the meantime, two similar-looking Australian releases appeared. Electric Soup collects the singles-oriented band’s best-known songs, wisely omitting the weaker tracks that plagued its early albums. Gorilla Bisquit, a 20-strong compilation of B-sides, live tracks and rarities, is nearly as good. Among the highlights: a terrific live cover of the Flamin Groovies’ “Teenage Head,” the wave-riding instrumental “Little Drummer Boy (Up the Khyber),” the Booker T. tribute “Lover for a Friend” and the revelatory “The Wedding Song,” as lovely a ceremonial as you’re likely to hear.
For the first four songs (including the passionate “Crossed Wires”), Crank sounds like the work of a revitalized band with something to prove. But then the rest of the album plods by. Mediocre and surprisingly gimmicky, Crank includes both an odd, whiny parody of Boston (“Less Than a Feeling”) and a lame “Louie Louie” rip (c’mon, guys). Add Ed Stasium’s lead-footed production and you’ve got the least imaginative Gurus album yet. If only they’d return to the Hoodoo they do so well.
Blue Cave has moments in which the giddy thrill of tuneful wit charged by enthusiastic playing takes hold, but the sense that the group is grasping at ill-fitting, unfashionable styles loads the album with wet sand and prevents it from soaring much above the predictability of such songs as “Waking Up Tired” and “Always Something.”