Album Reviews

Strange Boys – Be Brave

(Rough Trade) UK release date: 22 February 2010

Today’s so-called garage rock is typically dominated by fuzz and noise, thrashing and wailing, and drunken disregard for song structure or melody. Austin, Texas natives Strange Boys have got all that, but there’s something distinctly Bob Dylan-goes-electric about their latest album, Be Brave.

This is a well-controlled set of songs – nearly to the point of threatening to burst at any turn – and Strange Boys, led by the offhandedly charismatic vocal presence of Ryan Sambol, meander through a pressure cooker of Vietnam era jangly R&B and Rickenbacker soul.

Strange Boys don’t rely on their fuzz-boxes to mask their imperfections. Indeed they sound like they just may have existed in the expansive stillness just before Pete Townshend smashed his first amplifier. As such, flubs and missed notes hang out and colour the tracks with a surprisingly refreshing humanity in an age dominated by albums created by computers. Instead, we’ve got room noises, harmonicas, organ, smoky guitars, and the occasional saxophone solo (the stunning lead single and title track).

The music has the same live urgency that made Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone so endearing. These recordings seem to exist firmly in their place and time, living testaments to sessions that actually happened, and it’s easy to imagine the dusty Texas atmosphere that shaped their sound. It’s all channeled through a decidedly hipster lo-fi aesthetic (the production sounds most notably like the echo-thick aloofness of The Walkmen‘s You & Me).

At the forefront is Sambol, a staggering vocal presence with a voice like barbed wire soaked in whisky. He’s equal parts Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and The Hives‘ Pelle Almqvist, and he creeps around his melodies, often choking them out and turning them on their ear. He’s got the same sullenness and slurred delivery that made Caleb Followill sound like a backwoods madman on Kings Of Leon‘s first record (especially on the acoustic closer, You Can’t Only Love When You Want To). He often comes across as a man on the very brink of erupting in a violent fury, but – perhaps to his credit – he never does. Instead, he delivers his rock ‘n’ roll message in quietly reserved jagged bursts, coming across as more hipslung and stiff-lipped than outright angry.

Sambol’s lyrics are puzzling, but his politics seem varied. On the scratchy ballad Dare I Say, he sings, “If on a clear bright day I get blown away, look no further than the CIA.” In contrast, on the hilarious, but somehow tender Laugh At Sex, Not Her, he croons, “My friends are having sex in the other room, being quiet as they can so as not to be rude,” over a thumping and slow-burning blues riff.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Be Brave is its consistency. Strange Boys are obviously products of a post-Is This It world and, as such, they are made to live in the shadow of this century’s handful of successful garage-rock revivalists. But they never come across as mere hipsters, and they never break character. Whatever war’s going on, the weapons of garage rock haven’t changed, and Strange Boys are carriers of a torch that was nearly lost when the ’80s became the new decade of choice for hip bunko artists.

For the length of Be Brave’s 12 tracks, time is folded over on itself, and garage rock is as it should be. Strange Boys are not revivalists, and they’re not out of touch. Instead, they offer exactly the kind of rock ‘n’ roll slap in the face we need in this angular, post-modern 2010. The garage hasn’t sounded this good in a long time.

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Strange Boys – Be Brave