Stylish Vancouver garagesters with hearts of pure rock’n’roll rubbish, the wonderful Smugglers represent the pop side of the monoxide-flavored genre in the great Northwest with flash, trash, goofball humor and self-deprecating Canuck charm. The lively five haven’t always been captured at their best on record, but when the moon is right and the mics are set just so, no one else can offer such compelling evidence that the Fleshtones have colorful Canadian spawn, raised on radioactive shellfish from the Black Lagoon.
The Smugglers at Marineland was recorded in Seattle by an early lineup, back when the young band’s heat-prostration stage gear consisted of wool pea jackets, toques and wading boots. Released by Vancouver DJ/journalist mentor/annotator Nardwuar the Human Serviette, the 10-inch platter sardine-jams in nine ripping songs and two futile interview bits. Between covers of the Kinks (“I Took My Baby Home”), Billy Childish (“Yardbird”) and Jimmy Silva (“Is That, Rock?”), the Smugs hit the surf, B-52’s style, on “Pebble Beach,” go all fuzzy and mushy about “Jailbait,” sing the praises of their hometown in the Trashmen-styled “Vancouver, B.C.” and make the cultural observation, set to a brisk Jerry Lee Lewis beat, that “Calgarians Don’t Dance.” Singer Grant Lawrence’s unassuming voice gives the songs all the offhand personality they require.
Precisely packaged as a vintage bootleg but actually a legitimate PopLlama product, Atlanta Whiskey Flats introduces a new rhythm section as well as a wider range of songwriting styles. Tempering the essential brisk racket with sprightly pop faculties (though blunted by the flat, inept mastering), the Smugglers concentrate on delivering cool songs like the upbeat likes-list of “Canadian Ambassadors,” the giddy tour diary of “Fun in the USA,” the winsome foiled romanticism of “What’d I Do Wrong?,” the crude “She Said: Shut Up!” (sung by bassist K. Beezley) and the instrumental “Reid.” At times sounding like Star Club-era Beatles, the Smugglers accomplish their mission with maximum likability.
Billed as Los Smugglers on the Spanish-released Wet Pants Club (originally an eight-song vinyl issue, it became a CD with four additional songs recorded a year later), the fearless five let out the electric stops and muster some real fidelity — hot, clear and effective — for a change. The mixed program balances originals — both retro (“Paper Doll,” “Time Marches On,” the instrumental “Don Valley”) and relatively modern (“Surrender,” “Mach 1,” “Amnesia”) — and nifty covers (the Who’s “La La La Lies,” the Boys’ rude “Kiss Like a Nun,” Frank Zappa’s surf instrumental “Pacifica Stomp”), all fired-up with tight and fuzzy garage-pop power. Boss!
In the Hall of Fame usefully compiles the best bits of Atlanta Whiskey Flats and Marineland, adding a loose 45 track from 1992 and nine previously unreleased studio cuts, two of which (including a blueswailing harp-powered white-boy rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied”) predate Marineland by a year. The shitty sound (even on CD) doesn’t seriously impair the thrill of extra-hard-rocking numbers like the winning statement of principle, “Rock’n’Roll Was Never This Fun,” a raw-voiced Sex Pistols soundalike Sid Vicious would never have condoned. Even with a measure of topicality creeping into the soup (“Alan Thicke,” “My Morrissey Shirt”), the Smugglers remain global thinkers, as songs like “Your Mom’s the Devil” clearly demonstrate.
The 7-inch Party…Party…Party…Pooper!, released in four different personality sleeves, contains four peppy numbers, most prominently the band’s “Smuggler King” and a racing cover of Paul Collins’ great Beat song, “Walking Out on Love.” The four-song Senor Pantsdown was released only in Spain.
Introducing the group’s snappy new business suits (the boots remain, however) and Mint’s hookup with Lookout!, Selling the Sizzle! is a doozy, an intense burst of ebullience that takes its lighthearted mission (“To Serve, Protect and Entertain”) very seriously. With drum-tight playing, soaring fidelity and Lawrence as the versatile mouthpiece, the Smugs step out of the slop-rock shadows as a rip-roaring ’60s showband with deliciously memorable party songs that serve equally well as tribute and parody. A personalized version of Freddy Cannon’s “The Dedication” tunes in kitschy teen radio memories with a stomping beat and messages from the band, but the song’s title could just as easily apply to the band’s winning enthusiasm.
Easily the most entertaining rock’n’roll album of the year 2000, the Kurt Bloch-produced Rosie breathlessly catches the Smugglers at a whole new level of greatness, sublimating the unserious part of their silliness into more exquisitely purified non-stop fun. A stylistic prelude of sorts to the stardom subsequently realized by such inferior overseas crudmongers as the Hives and the Vines, the album is cranked up high; rude, funny, diverse and as sharp as a tack. “Rock Thy Neighbor” comes roaring out of the gate in full effect, and “Booze Can” (Vancouver slang for an after-hours watering hole, an enterprise bassist Beez once undertook in his house!) only accelerates the energy. (Those same sybaritic joys get further airings in “Teen Mob,” “Useless Rocker” and a cover of Brownsville Station’s “Kings of the Party.”) A rendition of the Kinks’ “I’ll Remember” shows the and adept at pop without irony, while the humor button gets hit hard in “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” and “She’s Another Thing” (“…that I’ve done wrong”), Dr. Frank’s (Mr. T Experience) contribution to the band’s lexicon of clumsy romance. Digging into the history of sex, “Miss Pilgrim” is an ode to onetime Playboy Playmate Janet Pilgrim, while the title track is quite the opposite: a gooey sweet duet with Tiger Trap founder Rose Melberg that stands as the Smugglers’ finest moment. And there’s more!
Mutiny in Stereo keeps the fun going, but to incrementally less effect. (Is that Kurt Bloch’s absence being felt?) For one thing, it’s brief — 11 songs in 30 minutes — and contains no covers. “Pirate Ships,” “Shock the Shanker,” “Don’t Mess With Beez” and “Billy Billy” all draw from the familiar well of Smugglers revved-up garage jizz, while “Mach 1” is (shock! horror!) acoustic and the instrumental finale, “Do You Hear That Sound,” is barely louder. The fan tribute “Larry” finds a good middle ground of gusto that lets the tune’s melodic hook shine through, while “Haunt Me” trots out a wah-wah pedal for variety. A fine dose, but not the exciting headspinner its predecessor was.
When not engaged in their primary endeavor, guitarist Nicholas Thomas leads the Tonics (a 7-inch on Zapruder), while guitarist David Carswell is in the Evaporators and Thorsen, a Nordic metal band that squeezed a single out but left its album in the can. Bassist Beez sings and plays guitar in the Beauticians, an absurdist quintet in which a violist and a violinist gracefully aid and abet a hyperactive Monty Python sense of whimsy (“Eric the Fish” may well remind some of “Eric the Half-a-Bee”). The smartly produced and sweetly harmonized Imperiale — which couldn’t be much further removed from the Smugglers’ sound — shifts styles all over the pop-folk-rock-country continuum, all in service of humorous items like “New Age Song for a Cynical Generation,” “Party Girl With a Problem” and “Stockboy Jack.” If a little too much at times, the album is irresistible in small doses and is recommended to restless fans of They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies.