After playing mutant swamp-blues-rockabilly guitar with the Gun Club in the early ’80s, Ward Dotson embarked on a less contrived musical course as guitarist, main writer and de facto leader of the Pontiac Brothers, a quartet of unlikely heroes whose Stonesy tunes — even their record company described the Orange County, California band as Stones-influenced, a rare case of restraint in advertising — featured ambivalently introspective lyrics that grew increasingly insightful until the band’s late-’80s breakup.
Big Black River, their first album, was released only in France, which might reinforce prejudices about French taste in rock. Singer Matt Simon pushes his Mick Jagger impression beyond what it’s worth; the original songs are uninspired pastiches of the Rolling Stones and ’60s punk in general; the production can charitably be called shitty.
With a new rhythm guitarist, the Pontiacs re-recorded a third of Big Black River for Doll Hut. Their US debut has a more polished sound, though still decidedly Jagged vocals. The new Dotson/Simon material shows promise: “Out in the Rain” sets a poignantly wasted lyric against well-juggled musical clichés, while “Keep the Promise” — with acoustic guitar, a first — is passionate if murky. (The cassette reflects the band’s fondness for performing vintage covers by including a version of the MC5’s “Tonight.”)
Simon finally downplayed his Jagger tendencies on Fiesta en la Biblioteca, also the first Pontiac Brothers album to be recorded as a quartet. There’s some welcome variety in tempos, arrangements and sentiments. (The cassette adds a cover of Bad Company’s “Movin’ On.”) The wistful “Be Married Song” — a rare Dotson lead vocal — was redone in an electric arrangement for a 12-inch EP, which also contains “Doll Hut” (from Fiesta), the fine non-LP “Brenda’s Mom” and a bracing rendition of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap).”
The Pontiacs’ chef d’oeuvre, Johnson, starts with a roar (“Ain’t What I Call Home”) and scarcely lets up in intensity. The inevitable Stones substratum remains — guest pianist Ian McLagan adds British authenticity — but the band has grown its own shaggy personality. Replacements fans will enjoy the frustrated vitriol of “Creep” (another Dotson vocal) and “Real Job,” which Simon delivers in a Westerbergian howl. (The cassette and CD add Paul McCartney’s “Magneto and Titanium Man.”) Identifying with the underdog without getting misty-eyed about it, the Pontiac Brothers are ragged but right.
Dotson subsequently formed the Liquor Giants, which operates in a similar vein, the main difference being his lead vocals, which are technically limited but actually a bit more expressive than those of Pontiacs frontman Matt Simon. You’re Always Welcome is a dynamic debut, with crunchy, hook-filled tunes like “Over the Hill,” “Greatest Hit” and “I Wanna Get Drunk With You” exploring young-adult angst with barbed, fatalistic humor. Here is nearly as good, with one of many highlights provided by “Everybody’s a Genius,” a tart commentary on indie-scene backbiting from someone who’s obviously been there.
In between the first two Liquor Giants discs, Dotson (who’d moved for a while to New York, where he’d also recorded with the Pussywillows and the Hello Strangers) reconvened the Pontiac Brothers to make Fuzzy Little Piece of the World. Though apparently conceived as a casual one-off, the album retains the balance of beery abandon and wounded introspection that originally made the band special, while maintaining the requisite level of tunefulness on numbers like “Cry” and “Clowns Join the Circus.” Around the same time, Frontier paired up Doll Hut and Fiesta en la Biblioteca and reissued them on a single CD.
Other than three guest appearances and drums by Pontiac- man Simon, Dotson is back on his own for Liquor Giants (the cover art of which got Dotson in hot water with the makers of Crown Royal whiskey). It could have been a staple of’70s radio if Big Star and their ilk had actually been popular; nowadays, it’d fit in on any station that plays Fountains of Wayne. The opener, “Chocolate Clown,” drips with Big Star hooks, guitars and harmonies, but Dotson’s originality takes hold on such zippy gems as “100 Dollar Car” and “Jerked Around.” His winking- everyman lyrics are a huge asset: rhyming Galileo with Scott Baio in “Awful Good” (which Simon co-wrote) and namedropping Shamrock Shakes in “Chocolate Clown.” A sterling exhibit of power pop with a welcome sense of humor.
The Giants are an actual band on Every Other Day at a Time. Mark McGroarty (bass and vocals) and Mark McNally (guitar and vocals) join Dotson and Simon for the best album released under the Liquor Giants name. The guitars and harmonies are still the governing forces musically, along with Dotson’s winning tunes, which are especially relentless here. “It’s Raining Butterflies” is as instantly catchy as a song can be, and it’s just so happy. The same applies to “Caroline,” written by McNally. The seven-track stretch from “Dearest Darling” through “It Only Hurts When I Smile” is absolutely dazzling. The most significant misstep here? The too-obvious “What’s the New Mofo.”
Around the same time, the Giants issued a covers collection, Something Special for the Kids, with sparkling renditions of classics by Tom Jones (“What’s New, Pussycat”), the Move (“Fire Brigade”), Bowie (“Boys Keep Swinging”) and others.
Having found something of a following in Australia, Dotson released Up With People there. McNally and Simon are gone, replaced by Steve K. on piano and Byron Reynolds on drums. The disc sends mixed messages. While the harmonies here hit Beach Boys intensity, Dotson is more pissy, and the songs aren’t as consistent. Dotson has done better than this, still, Up With People hits more often than it whiffs. “Listen to the Robins Sing” is as simply beautiful a recording as Dotson can make, and the harmonies in “Industry Hookers” are like comfy cushions.