Album Review: Red Monroe: Policia Policia!
(3 out of 5)
From the piercing, ear-destroying feedback found on Jesus and Mary Chain's early material to the reckless improvised interplay between John Cale and Sterling Morrisson on Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray," it seems that some of the most exciting stretches of the greatest rock albums emerge from unplanned moments of chaos that provide a certain amount of grit and discomfort. This is a mostly intangible quality that often has less to do with the songs themselves and more to do with how those songs are presented to the listener-- in these instances, it's not how the song is written, but how it is being played and how it is captured on record that makes the moment, turning an otherwise good album into a great one. Don't get me wrong, the songs are obviously important too, and great rock albums are often great despite unbecoming recordings. But let me ask you this-- would Guided By Voices' Alien Lanes be as glorious as it is if it had been recorded in a slick studio rather than on a crappy four track? I don't think so. In fact, it would probably sound like GBV's vastly inferior later material. Would Dinosaur Jr.'s SST albums rock the way they do if the feedback from J Mascis' guitar didn't hurt your ears every once in a while? Doubt it. And would Black Flag be as much fun if they never fucked up on record? No way. I mention these examples not so that I can hold Red Monroe to the standard of the aforementioned bands, but only to point out that when it comes to rock n roll records, "consummate professionalism," to borrow a phrase from Patrick Bateman, isn't usually necessary, and sometimes, records suffer from studio perfection and flawless execution when it prevents such unhinged moments from occurring.
As we've noted before, Red Monroe possesses many of the qualities of a potentially great rock band, and everything about their debut full length, Policia Policia!, indicates that they've become significantly more confident and ambitious since the release of their self titled EP last year. From the tight musicianship and sophisticated songwriting to the bold, colorful marketing campaign and politically informed conceptual narrative concerning life in Dallas, the album stands out and separates Red Monroe from the run of the mill Dallas "indie" acts that often seem content to deliver the same mediocre garbage time and time again. This, of course, is a good thing-- Red Monroe is one of the few bands in Dallas proper that is often able to strike a healthy balance between artistic viability and commercial accessibility, and Policia Policia has the potential to convince many new listeners of this fact with catchy songs, memorable lyrics, and smart influences on full display throughout its running time. But despite everything the band does better than most of their Dallas based contemporaries, a few issues pop up throughout Policia Policia that hold Red Monroe back, resulting in a significantly softer punch than the group seems capable of packing.
A quick listen to the album's nine tracks reveals a document that rocks significantly harder than it's predecessor, as the band veers away from its previous infatuations with nu post-punk and Radiohead and moves toward bold blues riffs and sassy garage/glam energy that strongly recalls Television's Marqee Moon, the Make Up, early White Stripes, and Julian Cope's oft overlooked group The Teardrop Explodes. In fact, the Television influence is all over the place, and can be heard particularly clearly in the compelling vocals of lead singer Eric Steele, who incorporates Tom Verlaine's nervous, high pitched shout into virtually every track on the album. This promising set of influences serves as an appealing (if not wholly original) template for the band, and in many places throughout the album, they utilize it to produce some very solid results.
The album's first two tracks, which also happen to be two of its shortest, provide an exhilarating beginning. "City Boy Motel" gets right down to business with a choppy, rhythm heavy lead guitar riff that builds up into an explosive politically charged chorus ("All them soldiers/erase the fourth of the July from their mind"), slapping the listener in the face with boldness and clarity before the song instantaneously transitions into the loud and catchy "The Sundown Shade,"easily the best track on the album. These two tracks are examples of Red Monroe at their finest- provocative, thoughtful songwriting that seems to rush past you in a blur of big riffs, unexpected changes and a measurable level of raw tension assuring you that they mean it. Elsewhere, the album's title track works well as its epic centerpiece, a five and a half minute long set of hyper transitions from Zeppelinesque blues riffs to gypsy polka to a section of chanting influenced by traditional Indian music that ends with an explosive multi-part vocal that showcases Red Monroe's potential for experimentation better than any other track they've released thus far. These and most of the other tracks on the album are quite fun, and warrant praise for their structure, style and execution.
In fact, it's quite easy to point out all of Policia Policia's strengths because there are so many of them, but what is more difficult is explaining why the album doesn't work quite as well as it should, although I think I have a vague idea. As things progress, it becomes obvious that the album could use a dose of the grit found on other recent garage influenced rock albums such as King Khan and the Shirnes What is?, Black Lips' Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo (which I realize is a "live" record, although the point remains unchanged), and even White Drugs' Harlem. It's not that the songs on those records are necessarily THAT much better than anything found on Policia Policia, but that they seem to pack so much energy that they sound as though they could fall apart at any moment, which is something you cannot say about the disciplined, evenly mixed tracks on this album. Guitar distortion that overpowers roughly recorded vocals. Loud, slightly out of tune keyboard parts. Incoherent noisy freakouts. The occasional mistake. These are the kind of things that make the aforementioned records what the are, and considering what Red Monroe is trying to do on Policia Policia, it seems that the record would benefit from this kind of grit too. The listener can sit and imagine what "Trees and Poor Houses" might sound like with uncomfortably loud guitars and distortion on the vocals, or maybe wonder how "Fever Kids" might work if the horns weren't quite so tuneful and smooth, or if they were allowed to overpower the rest of the mix all together.
This isn't to say that lo-fi and sloppy is always the way to go, or that Red Monroe has to record in a shoe box in order to gain some kind of "cred" that most people really don't care about anyway. It's just that Policia Policia sounds like a caged animal, waiting to go crazy but held back by the limitations of a flawlessly smooth recording and mix that often fails to expose the power behind some of these songs while failing to document the band outside of a perfectly executed comfort zone. The potential is audible, and many songs on the record work despite these limitations, but the need for a few unhinged moments is clear, and it is apparent that a dash of feedback, a dose of slop and a touch of gritty noise might have turned this strong swing into a knockout punch.