The It*Men's "Greatest Its"
The band in the pics could be from anywhere, but probably someplace where there's a college. (OK, they're from Cleveland. Ohio is the secret music capital of America.) They look like Mudhoney, playing cheap shitty guitars by choice, but not "ironically." The lead singer has glasses. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I've been told that they sound like MC5/Stooges. Back when I used to go to SXSW at the behest of some publication or other, I heard that descriptor so many times that it became meaningless. Sigh. War's over. We won.
Dropping the needle in the grooves, my cynicism takes a powder. There are echoes of Detroit ramalama here, but they're mixed with a healthy dollop of Pacific Northwest greaser garage grunt. Sure, "Come and Get Some" even employs the classic "Kick Out the Jams"/"I'm Loose" chord progression, but it's all folk music, right? "W.I.P.G.A.S." sounds for all the world like a collaboration between Ron Asheton and Gerry Roslie. And that's a mighty fine thing indeed.
Underneath the goofy mythologizing, these guys are smart, sharp players. The dueling guitars play distinct parts, rather than a wall of noise like you might expect, intertwining lines and soloing with fuzz-'n'-wah-laden abandon. Rather than cloaking their rifferama in the overly saturated sounds of vintage Gibsons 'n' Marshalls, they sound like they plug the aforementioned shitty guitars into cruddy pawnshop amps -- raw but right. In places, they're as arranged as the MC5 were on Back In the U.S.A., but imagine if Landau hadn't felt compelled to cut the Five's balls off when he recorded 'em.
Unlike many bands of similar ilk, these It*Men are no one-trick ponies. There's enough variation between the tunes to justify a double album, even veering into Can (!) territory -- albeit with less riddimic imagination than that kosmische crew -- on the side-long closer "Death Machine." "Doing Drugs for You" shows a keen sense of dynamics, opening with just drums and bass to build excitement and blasting off into the stratosphere from there. "It*Men Stomp" plunders Bo Diddley in a way that'd make Them and the Pretty Things proud, while "Screw the Pooch" is redolent of Bon-era AC/DC.
The secret weapon is frontman Ken Janssen, who might look like an English Lit major, but sings like a cross between a National Wrestling Alliance grappler and a demented biker from some forgotten '60s TV cop show. On top of that, he writes clever, funny lyrics, even managing to rhyme "Yukon" and "futon" on "Baby, I'm Your Man," a sexual tour of these United States. Give these guys half a chance, I say to myself, and they could give "garage rock" a good name again.
The smile dies on my lips when I surf over to their website and read the real band bio. Apparently the It*Men's real heyday was in the '90s, and ten years after they folded the tent, frontman Janssen was diagnosed with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's disease. Earlier this year, they regrouped to record new tunes and play one last show to boost their bandmate's spirits and raise money to help defray his medical expenses.
It seems rockaroll is become the music of mortality, with guys like Mick Farren shuffling off this mortal coil every week, and even Lemmy proving to be less invulnerable than we all fantasized. The Big Sleep is even becoming a more frequent lyrical theme -- just listen to the albums the Stooges and Deniz Tek, f'rinstance, released this year. Greatest Its is a giant razzberry blown in the Grim Reaper's face. Don Van Vliet said it, and I believe it: "Death be damned / Life."