Album: We Have You Surrounded
Label: In The Red
Review date: Feb. 12, 2008
A couple of years ago, when I talked to Mick Collins, he said that the Dirtbombs were probably more than halfway through their arc as a band and that after one more album, their bubblegum record, they would most likely call it quits. Collins observed that he would ordinarily have had three or four bands during the lifespan of the Dirtbombs. No one was more surprised than he that it had lasted so long.
No kidding. The band has, at this point, been through 17 line-ups, always with the same basic structure, two basses -- one regular, one fuzz -- a guitar (Collins himself), two drummers and whoever happens to drift into the studio for backing vocals and hand-claps. (Collins' "innocent bystander" rule requires that anyone physically present at a Dirtbombs session contribute something to the record.) The distinctive double-shot rhythm section has been consistent through the Dirtbombs various incarnations -- as a soul band, as a pop band, as a cover band turning its voracious attention to everyone from Yoko Ono to Elliott Smith and even, recently, as the house band at a Cannes film festival party. While not exactly predictable, the Dirtbombs always sound like the Dirtbombs - thunderous, fuzzy, loose, funny, smarter than average and maybe a little dangerous.
So it's good news that perhaps we can put off the death of the Dirtbombs for a little while longer. Now with We Have You Surrounded, we have in hand the fourth proper Dirtbombs album (not counting the massive 2-disc singles compilation, If You Don't Already Have a Look). It is definitely not a bubblegum record.
What is it, mostly, is an end-of-the-world record, describing in celebratory, fuzzed out style, the collapse of our technologically advanced society. Its unquestionable highpoint, "Leopardman at C&A" (based on Alan Moore's graphic novel of the same name) rides a jungle-y beat, pounding double drums and fuzzy bass, making it as easy to move to as it is fascinating to puzzle out. The first verse, for instance, goes like this: "We'll hunt down television sets and kill them for their skins / We'll squeeze the juice from cell phones and we'll smear it on our faces / While zebra cars and trucks drink from a gasoline oasis / With our necklaces of radio teeth and bar-code based tattoos / We'll build a tribal fire of soundbytes / Cut from central network news." The rest is similarly vivid and surreal.
Once you notice the eschatological motif, it pops up everywhere, even "Ever Lovin' Man," which sounds as close as anything to the amphetamine-laced soul of Ultraglide in Black. It's a love song (a pleading for sex song, really, but aren't they all?), but it's set in a world where it's getting dark, where a "slipstream of destruction / has us in its tow." And it is perfectly plain in the rattle-drum pop and circumstance of "Fire in the Western World," even more so in "I Hear Sirens" and howling, moaning "They Have You Surrounded."
Still it wouldn't be a Dirtbombs record without a quota of hedonism, and good times can be had even in the red glow of the apocalypse. "Indivisible" with its manic doo-wop chorus and skronky, strutting rhythms, could hardly be more fun. Later, "Wreck My Flow" has the sinuous skank of all Collins' best fuck-off songs, even though the things that are boguing his high this time are ripped from the headlines. "Holy roller / despot / car-bomb in the parking lot / kid blow / new show / prime time lead slot..." are among the many chanted downers trying to wreck the man's flow. And then there is "Pretty Princess Day," built along the primitive lines of "Train Wreck" and like that song, putting a troublesome woman firmly in her place.
End-of-days vibe aside, the first half of the album is so consistently good that I find myself thinking "best Dirtbombs ever" right up until the moment "Pretty Princess Fades" out. Unfortunately, after this point We Have You Surrounded is pockmarked with potholes, and one - the long, excruciating "Race to the Bottom" - is big and bad enough to lose an axle in. This track is more than eight minutes long, a steady slog through arrhythmic drumming, squiggly keyboard songs and feedback. It's like the Dirtbombs said, "Fuck you all. We're a noise band now," but without making much of an attempt to learn how to be a noise band successfully. That's the worst of it, but "I Hear the Sirens" and "They Have You Surrounded" are also noticeably weaker than the rest of the album.
Reportedly, the record was originally intended to be a five-song EP, and it's really too bad that the band changed its mind. The best five songs from We Have You Surrounded might have been a classic, at least on the level with Ultraglide and maybe better. As it stands, it's a really good, seriously flawed album, with some great songs and some big misses, a sort of living, breathing justification for your CD player's skip button.
By Jennifer Kelly