06 July 2009

Record Review: Redd Kross- "Neurotica" [1987]

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Redd Kross is so many things. They're the late-80s answer to Big Star- a loud, rocking pop group that fell out of print and never got it's due. They're an almost perfect midpoint between the Replacements cock-rock noise swagger and the weird, ethereal big pop punk of the Pixies. They sound like Minor Threat doing Gerry Rafferty covers. If you took the brain of a kid watching TGIF and put it in Wayne Kramer's body. This album has earned "cult" status because it was so hard to find and so many musicians named checked it. Which is fine I guess, but were circumstances more kind, they'd be legends, subjects of more line-by-note dissections than nearly any band of that era.

Because they were oddly reflective of that time, when popular music truly began abandoning classic structure and started, well, "commenting" on itself. Hip hop was taking a generation of music, cutting it up and spitting it back out in it's own purpose. Hardcore and heavy metal were using similarly brutal noises to reflect an aesthetic (in one sense at least). Redd Kross probably didn't hew too close to this path, but what makes this album great independent of the drama surrounding it's availability and how it measures up to that "cult" of statuses is it's ability to take something somewhat nostalgic and formulaic and emulating in nature and make it immediate, fresh and energetic. It's such an exciting juxtaposition that you can't help but admire it and, ultimately, embrace some of it's out-there flaws. They were children of the 80s- very comfortable their whole career acknowledging, interpreting, re-fitting and referencing everything around them they loved. The Exorcist, Jim & Tammy Fae Baker, Tatum O'Neal. I think of Neurotica in much the same way people describe, for instance, Paul's Boutique- cartoony, frenetic. But they're both just so much fun, you have to take them seriously. Nothing as well crafted as "Janus, Jeanie and George Harrison" can be ignored.

Like "Pink Piece of Peace," this record has a punk heart. These were a pair of brothers that started a band in middle school in suburban California- and even considering all the huge hooks, Sunset Strip noodling, psychedelic sound and frosted cereal references- these were punk kids. The kind of 80s punk kid that was becoming much less didactic and narrow minded in what he/ she listened to and watched and bought. So these guys started out in the same scene with Bad Religion and the Circle Jerks, their first ever gig opening for Black Flag- and covered the Shangri-Las. And even have a little Butthole Surfers in their sound.

The first song is the title track, and it sort of has a "Sgt. Pepper's" opener feel to it, leading into "Play My Song," a stoned rocker that kicks off the album proper- big thick guitars, harmonies, hooks and solos. Fuzz for miles.

Another record it reminds me of is Slint's Spiderland, the 1991 "post-rock" classic that was so simple and yet inexplicably unique sounding. They both have a closed-off, insular sound to them, like they were created in total obscurity. Of course, there's those "serious-young-man" stories you hear about the guys in Slint going nuts making their record in Louisville backwoods. The big difference here is that Redd Kross were from California and ate lots of sugar.

Still- there's something about that proto-stomp on "Peach Kelli Pop" that reminds me of some of the more rhythmically effusive moments of Spiderland. Until the chorus, of course. They both share a weird, just-post-adolescent grain in the growl of the vocals. That sound is sort of like a spirit that permeates both records- and is what makes all the new, discovery-of-sounds on them that much more exciting.

There are the big epics like "It's the Little Things," and the little right-cross punk tracks like "Tatum O'Tot and the Fried Vegetables." The songs move really well between these styles I think because it has that lean, distorted reverb late-80s college rock style production, done to perfection here by Tommy Erdelyi (Ramone). Let's check out his production credits for a second here, leaving aside for a moment his amazing work as the Ramones' original manager-turned-drummer.

The Ramones- The Ramones [1976]
The Ramones- Leave Home [1977]
The Ramones- Rocket to Russia [1977]
The Replacements- Tim [1985]
Redd Kross- Neurotica [1987]

Very underrated. A shame he hasn't done more of these. Either way, the Redd Kross/ Replacements connection here is interesting because both bands had a very similar relationship with the mainstream hair-dominated rock scene in the mid-to-late 80s. Both Redd Kross and the Mats used, like these bands, elements of glam, thrash, psychedelic and old school rock and roll in their sounds. For that time period, arguably the most influential band in the whole of pop history was the New York Dolls.

But Redd Kross and the Mats also listened to hardcore, and it was that emergent scene that completely removed any compulsion to be what it was those bands... were. You could argue that the hardcore strain replaced by the New Wave of British heavy metal one would make hair metal, but that was also a huge influence on Metallica and thrash metal becoming more musical, so that doesn't totally work, but it's close.

Redd Kross and the Replacements also had great, wry senses of humor- the Replacements less so, and really, they were the far superior band anyway. But neither band took itself inherently seriously, which for a beer-chugging group of scrawny Midwesterners, made for a go-for-broke sound that held to that "wire with too much current going through it" maxim. For Redd Kross, stuck in sun-soaked suburbia, it manifests as attention deficient, pent up exuberant energy. No hook is "too" big, no song can rock "too" hard.

Neurotica has, relative to it's peers, a lot to live up to. In typical fashion of the 1980s, skimming through a list of the albums released in a given year begins to yield a shockingly strong mountain of work. This album came out the same year as Prince's Sign "O" the Times, Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Sonic Youth's Sister, U2's The Joshua Tree, REM's Document, Husker Du's Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Eric B & Rakim's Paid in Full, The Smiths' Louder than Bombs. Maybe it isn't the epic peak some of these represent, but it has earned it's status as a "lost classic." Echoing the beautifully articulated and lonely-nowhere-America pop genius of Big Star, Redd Kross is a perfect summer rock record, tons of fun and always something weird to hone in on.

Put on yr love beads and check it out!

Live in 87, the title track:

Here's the band LIVE from Santa Monica Pier in 1982 (5 years before Neurotica):


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