REDD KROSS “Researching The Blues” (MERGE Records)
The Time: Late 70s/Early 80s
The Place: Los Angeles, California
The Scene: The burgeoning Punk Rock landscape.
In 1978, puberty hit the McDonald Brothers just as Punk Rock was exploding
in Los Angeles. Inspired by the D.I.Y. ethos of Punk, Jeff and Steven formed
their first band, The Tourists, while they were still in Middle School in Hawthorne.
By 1980 they had morphed into Redd Kross.
In a sea of spit and safety pins, Redd Kross stood out. Not because
of their youth and relative inexperience, but because their songs had something
different to say. Jeff and Steven didn’t write about class warfare and spew the
same political bromides. Their angst was focused on teenage concerns, (“I Hate
My School.”) Yes, their music was inspired by Iggy & The Stooges and Black Flag,
but their cultural touchstones were Linda Blair, Tater-Tots, Charles Manson,
Saturday Morning Cartoons and the Carpenters!
Their first gig was opening for hometown heroes Black Flag.
Under the aegis of taste-making KROQ D.J. Rodney Bingenheimer,
Redd Kross became a popular presence of the diverse L.A. Punk scene.
Following their 1980 debut EP and their ragged long player,
“Born Innocent” in 1981, the band really hit pay dirt with 1987’s
“Neurotica.” Redd Kross had their strongest line-up with the addition
of guitarist Robert Hecker and drummer Ray McDonald, (no relation).
Sadly before they could capitalize on their momentum they became mired
in legal difficulties with their record label.
By 1990, Redd Kross had signed with a major label,
Atlantic, and released the surprisingly commercial “Third Eye.”
Songs like “Annie’s Gone” and “Bubblegum Factory” went into heavy
rotation back when MTV played actual music videos.
Two more releases followed, 1993’s “Phase Shifter” and “Show
World” in 1997. The band has been hibernating ever since. (Well, not really.
The brothers got married. Jeff to Go-Go Charlotte Caffey and Steven to Anna
Waronker, of that dog. They acted in several films from acclaimed director
Allison Anders, handled production chores for other bands. Steven even spent
time as an A & R rep for Warner Brothers Records)
But musically Redd Kross has returned with “Researching The
Blues.” Happily reunited with the “Neurotica” line up of Robert Hacker
and Ray McDonald.
The album opens with the frenetic finesse of the title track.
The super-charged melody echoes both Elvis Costello’s “13 Steps Lead
Down” and the Amboy Dukes’ seminal psychedelic freak out, “Journey
To The Center Of Your Mind.” A relentless beat brackets Jeff’s caveman
vocals and chainsaw guitar riffs. The lyrics make a barbed reference to
Redd Kross’ position as Punk elder statesmen: “Don’t be ahead of your time/
You’ll eat nothing but shit and never earn a dime.”
“Stay Away From Downtown” is a cautionary tale of drug addiction
cocooned in a sonic maelstrom of instrumentation. Guitars are full throttle
while drums and bass lock into an intricate rhythm. As the melody gallops
to a conclusion, the McDonalds bust out some lovely but incongruous
The original incarnation of Redd Kross, was obsessed with the “Exorcist,”
“Brady Bunch” and breakfast cereal. In 2012, they are concerned with more
topical issues. Both “Nu Temptations” and “Choose to Play” tackle the
inconsistent tenets of organized religion.
The former opens with guitar riffs that detonate like smart bombs.
Oblique lyrics question dogma…”Create a new plan, make it hard to understand/
Put it to the people, ignore the question why.” Hecker and Jeff’s guitars trade
off staccato fills and poppy filigrees that almost overwhelm the words.
The latter opens with ringing Byrds-y guitars and a taut backbeat.
Hidden in the framework of this winsome melody are thought provoking lyrics:
“Living in the world we co-exist with these people, they’re not good, bad, maybe
borderline evil/Don’t join their church look away from it’s steeple and run/
Don’t let them look into your eyes, look into their eyes and run.” The
controversial words are leavened by a sweet, supple guitar solo.
The best songs on “Researching The Blues” are “Uglier” and
“Dracula’s Daughters.” On “Uglier” a thundering backbeat crackles under
careening fuzztone guitars. The lyrics are a sharp commentary on today’s
alarming climate of hostility: “It’s getting uglier, no matter what they say,
This world is crazy, spinning out of control/Got to get together cause it’s
taking its toll.” Here Jeff’s sinewy solo crests atop the finely calibrated
chaos of Robert Hacker’s rhythm work.
“Dracula’s Daughters” is the complete opposite. Shimmery
baroque pop that echoes the Left Banke, (“Walk away Renee”).
Sweet fraternal harmonies wrap around gossamer guitar chords,
lush and feather light.
Other stand out tracks include the angular tilt-a-whirl of
“Meet Frankenstein.” “One Of The Good Ones” is a 60s pastische that
boasts an infectious handclap rhythm, a serrated guitar solo and verbose
lyrics. The Beatle-esque “Winter Blues” is an affectionate So-Cal shout out
ripe with chiming harmonies.
Closing the album, “Hazel Eyes” matches bloopy synth sounds
to strumming acoustic guitar. A quirky love song, it shifts tempo on the
break incorporating Steven’s walking bass line and a theremin-like
“Researching The Blues” isn’t just a graceful re-entry into the
Punk-Pop arena. It’s Redd Kross’ best effort to date. Let’s hope we don’t
have to wait another 15 years for the follow up.
REDD KROSS “Researching The Blues” (MERGE Records)