Before there was a Strokes to make it safe as milk, the snarly glam punk spirit of the Stooges, New York Dolls and Dead Boys lived for a time in the skinnyassed tattooed bodies of Pillbox, a New York quartet which offered a skankier, more menacing and less theatrical alternative to the likeminded and better-known D Generation. In capturing the lost-boys sound and tawdry ambience of their idols without overdoing it, the energetic Jimbo’s Clown Room drives down a power alley of sharp, memorable songs on twin hotrods, guided by guitarist Ratboy’s slithery Johnny Thunders/Steve Jones raunch and ex-39 Steps singer Chris Barry’s wavering, whiny conviction. The catchy plea to a drug dealer (“Come Up Heroin”) is pitiful and obnoxious, but “What She Wants,” “Sister Caroline” and the amphetaminized “Nowhereland” wrap the line between inspiration and imitation around history’s neck to fine effect.
The Pillbox on the flatly recorded followup EP has a new bassist and a different singer/lyricist. Although he clearly wouldn’t have suited the sound of Jimbo’s Clown Room, the plain-voiced Mark Phelan is also the wrong man for the band’s newly slicked-back guitar rock, a poppier and not specifically retro-minded rethink. As Pillbox’s sonic architect, Ratboy (Gilbert Avondet) reveals himself capable of writing and playing more complicated and subtle music — the atmospheric drug epic “Red Bag/Blue Bag” dedicates delicate piano, feedback and acres of space to a strongly melodic chorus — but Pillbox never latches onto any ideas as immediate or exciting as the album.
Back in Los Angeles, Ratboy was the guitarist in Motorcycle Boy, whose Popsicle album was thinly produced by ex-Dolls guitarist Syl Sylvain. Despite the big hair and mascara, the quartet (unrelated to the English band that came out of the Shop Assistants) plays taut, unfancy garage rock and stripped-down punkabilly, offering rudimentary songs like “Honalulu Baby,” “Shak n’Bones,” “Suicide” and the sax-powered “Swamp Stomp.” Despite the titular similarity, Popsicle’s “What I Want” and Clown Room’s “What She Wants” have nothing in common but desire.