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Redd Kross have always been too good, too perfect, too true, to believe. Mythic. Could this tuneful hardcore punk EP really be the work of a brother band with the 15-year-old on vocals and guitar and the 11-year-old on bass? Did Redd Kross really open for Black Flag? Could Jeff and Steve really have been born and raised in the Beach Boys’ hometown of Hawthorne, California, and did Jeff really see the Beatles live in 1966? Did one of them, dressed in Gene Simmons makeup, really kill a Bruce Springsteen impersonator onstage? Is that really their hair? Could Researching the Blues, their first studio album in 15 years, be not just the hottest thing since Cher went solo but the best start-to-finish Redd Kross record ever?
Somehow, the answer to all the above is improbably, wonderfully, beautifully YES. Long have Redd Kross rocked, and long have critics, devoted fans, Rodney Bingenheimer and fellow musicians from Seattle (Nirvana) to New York (Sonic Youth) to Driftwood, Texas (Butthole Surfers) to Hollywood (everybody) bowed before the Kross and their self-aware pre-spandex Glam bubblegum garage psychedelic Cheap Trick/Kiss/Revolver post-Kim Fowley rock and roll. Degenerate, sweet: tongues in cheek, song-long winks. Commercial success may never have been theirs (if time and space had been aligned correctly, they’d have been blitzing ballrooms in the early ’70s instead of opening for Stone Temple Pilots in the early ’90s), but Redd Kross have endured and endeared because they’ve always had the best possible attitude: smarts, smiles, and total commitment to live hair-spinning showmanship.
Like fellow legendary Great American John Waters, they’ve devoted their career to making subversive entertainment in a high pop celebrity style, reintroducing in their especially golden late ’80s/early-’90s period such forbidden classic-rock tropes as melodies, harmonies, ripping musicianship, and primary colors—stuff that had (largely) been ditched in the underground rock’s post-punk, No Wave, hardcore, and sensitive-egghead scenes. Redd Kross then spent the ’90s making one great misunderstood record after another until enough shit had caked the fan that in 1997 they pretty much called it quits.
But you never quit being brothers. And so here’s the next Redd Kross album—produced and mixed by younger brother Steve earlier this year after it was mostly written by older brother Jeff in 2007–08, and recorded in that same period with the band’s current lineup, who’ve re-engaged in live performance since being lured back into action by an excitable Spanish promoter.
They’re too nice to say so themselves, but attention must be paid to this band, to this great album, Researching the Blues, which, like a pair of great pants, is tight and the perfect length. By the time you’re two minutes and 51 seconds into the second song, “Stay Away From Downtown,” and the band is breaking into the sha-la-las, you will be running around the room with your hands in the air. As the fourth song, the Brian Wilsonian “Dracula’s Daughters,” ends and the dynamic mid-’60s Beatles jingle “Meet Frankenstein” launches into its first chorus, you will be mass-texting all of your friends with the good news. By the final four songs—“The Nu Temptations” (Stooges-worthy riffs! Cowsills counter-harmonies! And more!), the “Surrender”/Noel ’n’ Liam rockers “Choose to Play” and “Winter Blues,” and the stunning summer psychedelic power pop that is the closing “Hazel Eyes”—you will know the truth. You tried the rest—but now you’ve had the best. The McDonalds were educated at Rock ’n’ Roll High, and they’ve stayed true to their school. Here’s to their beautiful reunion! Redd Kross Forever!
Joshua Tree, California
In downtown Durham on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, the usual business of the bar The Federal idled. A couple leaned in close to chat at an outdoor table, hiding away from a motorcycle's passing blare. The tune of Alan Jackson's ode to making music, "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," drifted onto the patio from some distant stereo. Seated on two benches parallel to one of the bar's long, brown picnic tables, though, the band Maple Stave fretted, noticeably uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the situation.
"What a great question," said Andy Hull, one of the trio's two baritone guitarists, flatly after a pregnant pause. Everyone laughed with a moment of relief until the drummer, Evan Rowe, sighed and continued. "We're not good at good questions. We've got a list of things we're not good at."
Maple Stave has been a band since 2003; across three EPs and a handful of tours, they've steadily ratcheted the tension and muscle of their maneuverable math rock. From the outset, they seemed a band with a good idea of how they wanted to sound—that is, a fiery mix of Midwestern indie rock titans like Shellac, Slint and Shipping News. Over the last seven years, they've just gotten better at sounding that way by adding nuance and new twists. Those baritone guitars allow for swiveling lows and muscular highs; Rowe, a former marching band drummer, is a mathematical dynamo. Now, though, out here on the patio, Maple Stave is stuck trying to explain the variety and movement of its first LP, Like Rain Freezing and Thawing Between Bricks Year After Year, This House Will Come Down—or, more conveniently, LP1. As a band, they're better than ever before on this album. As analysts of their own music, they still struggle.
"I'm going to end up talking now and then stop talking, without actually making a point here probably," Chris Williams, the band's other baritone guitarist and songwriter, offers sheepishly. The band laughs again, but he presses ahead. "Somehow, all the songs—no, actually, that's it. I don't know where I was going with that. I'm going to go to sleep."
Part of the problem seems to be that Maple Stave isn't used to talking about the songs as a band. Friends for a decade who've been in each other's weddings and stood by as kids have been born and as relationships have bloomed and fallen apart, Hull, Rowe and Williams agree that they understand each others' lives. When an angry new song surfaces in the practice room, they don't have to talk about what it means.
"You can definitely tell where people are coming from," says Hull. "I think it's great that we can do that, that we're friends in that way."
"It's shit that happens to us, and it gets turned into songs. There's a lot of weird desperation and unhappiness on this record, but not hopeless unhappiness," Rowe—at 34, the oldest of the three—says, finally finding a thread in the album.
They don't need to speak, really: On LP1, those experiences translate into 40 minutes that exude action. During "SCOTT!," Williams hurls invectives and orders above a march as precise as the military, his damaged, buried howl the perfect foil for the band's Teutonic clip. "Cole Trickle" is breathless and anxious, musical mimesis of an instant where something has to happen if you're going to survive. "If They Are Brave, They Will Fight" seizes on the sort of glory and grandeur that made Explosions in the Sky famous, except it understates its climax, teasing expectations of conquest with what feels like a quiet escape into defeat.
"This record feels more desperate," says Rowe. "In a way."
Across the table, Hull looks up, smiles and quips: "Now don't oversell it."
And, again, they all laugh. with Maple Stave