Even as a long time Dandy Warhols fan, I have to admit the last decade of their career has been fairly patchy.
Ever since the release of Odditorium Or Warlords Of Mars, the band has spent a lot of album space exploring the experimental realms of their songwriting and delivering said records with a resounding “fuck you” attitude to the mainstream (which always seemed like a response to their professionally uncomfortable, yet creatively brilliant years signed to Capitol).
Unsurprisingly, that approach hasn’t always played to their advantage, which has been reflected in the mixed response they’ve received from critics and fans alike – the general reaction consistently being along the lines of “everything they’ve released since 2005 has fallen into frustratingly self-indulgent territory.”
However, that response itself has always been conflicting, as it was their experimentation and their hedonistic aesthetic that made the Dandy Warhols such a fascinating band to be a fan of in the first place. They were so obviously rock stars when they first arrived in the mid-90s (front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor has always looked like he was generated as the default character for Guitar Hero – not to mention the entire band has barely aged in 20+ years), despite emerging out of the not even remotely cool yet Portland, and their total and utter uncompromising approach to experimenting with their sound and their songwriting craft was always totally transfixing, right from their debut Dandys Rule OK and all the way up to Welcome To The Monkey House.
From psychedelic noise rock, straight up country jams, glammed out dance floor shakers and pure as gold pop anthems, there was nothing they could not successfully produce and produce exceedingly well. But since arguably their creative and popular peak on Monkey House, the Dandys have largely failed to replicate the momentum of those early years and spun off further and further into realms we couldn’t quite understand or find appreciation for.
As a fan, however, I’ve always held out hope that one day they would again find that perfect balance between heady self-indulgence and radio ready pop magic that initially drew me into their weird world, and now I’m happy to say that on Distortland they’ve managed to finally pull it off.
The record admittedly starts out slow, with openers Search Party and Semper Fidelis both fun jams but both lacking substance or an edge that really connects with the listener. Search Party almost sounds like a Dandy Warhols parody song to be quite honest – something Liam Lynch might have produced as a gag. And ‘Semper Fidelis’ is a little too modern era Gary Numan for my liking.
But then we get to You Are Killing Me (listen below), which is the best song that the band has written since Welcome To The Monkey House. It’s gorgeous, Stephin Merritt-esque simple construction, it’s delicate harmonies, and it grinding guitars all layer together to produce a dynamic composition that somehow sounds just as soothing as a low key ballad through headphones, as it does a bombastic rocker when blasted through speakers. I can only imagine the party vibe swell it creates when played live. It is an exceptionally well pieced together song and thrilling to hear that the band is still capable of such mastery.
As far as I’m concerned it’s also the real start of the album, as we then dive into the groove of Catcher In The Rye – its low key acoustic guitars, rattle snake rhythm and dreamy backing vocals sending me spinning right back to Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia.
The Iggy Pop worthy Pope Reverend Jim follows quickly (with fabulous, Dick Dale surf guitar lines from Peter Holmstrom), before the distorted lullaby of The Grow Up Song offers one of the album’s more tender moments.
Give provides another signature urban spaghetti western soundtrack, while there’s a strain and desperation in Taylor-Taylor’s voice on All The Girls In London that makes it his most engaging vocal performance in longer than I can remember, totally selling a song I may not have fallen for otherwise.
The drone of Doves recalls The Cranberries of all bands and for that reason perhaps doesn’t sit as well on the record as others, while the acoustic funk of closer STYGGO is the unfiltered, unadulterated sound of a band having fun.
“Return to form” is a cliched label I’d rather not bestow on Distortland, but it is undoubtedly their best album in an eon. The barn doors to the Odditorium have been swung wide open and from them has flooded a stream of music we knew the Dandy Warhols were capable of making all along.
It doesn’t quite make up for all those years/records where they left us feeling a little perplexed and a little sold short, but let’s hope that it serves as a blueprint for more great records to come.
‘Distortland’ is out now, grab a copy here.