The Raveonettes: A Touch of Black (2005)

April 22, 2013

Roll: 5-2-11
Album: The Raveonettes: A Touch of Black (Promo EP)

At some point I decided I should be more or less devoted to The Raveonettes. Something about their perpetual pop music underdog status and their unquenchable, almost irrational determination that they should be the biggest band on the planet. Or that they always have been but no one noticed. To me they’re the physical manifestation of a Springsteen song where they protagonists fight against overwhelming odds only have victory elude them at the last minute.

I’m not sure why I have this impression about the Danish noise-pop duo, or if it’s at all accurate,  but I like a band with a touch of myth and mystique about them. They remind me of the ’80s. Not because of the oft-noted Jesus and Mary Chain textures in their music, but because they hearken back to a time when rock stars felt like rock stars; like alien beings or demi-gods instead of just people doing a job like any other working schlub.

What happened? What happened to rock stars? We used to call Prince, Madonna and even a working schlub like Bruce Springsteen rock stars because stars are high above us, unreachable, untouchable. For all her glitz and bizarre costumes, I’ve never been able to see Lady Gaga as more than a rock person, not a “star” at all. Maybe it was all those “humanizing” interviews she did where she seemed be trying too hard to be aloof and quirky. Just an average kid playing a role.

Were the rock stars of my youth like that too? Duran Duran and Boy George always seemed so much larger than life. Heck, David Bowie was literally from Mars. But, of course, they’re always just ordinary people sitting on extraordinary pedestals.

Do we just realize this now because the Internet has brought musicians and their fans together on a more intimate level than ever before? Have too many tour blogs and back-stage videos going out of their way to say, “See, I’m just like you!” shown us that rock stars are human after all? Or do kids these days see Katy Perry and Chris Martin as ambassadors from a magical video wonderland?

Probably they do. I think probably I just grew up.

Haruki Murakami "Dance Dance Dance"

Anyway, I might not see The Raveonettes as alien gods, but something about their music reminds me of when I used to feel that way about rock stars. Their earthly rock’n’roll revivalism has always been treated with enough sci-fi studio magic that you never think, “Oh, yeah, they sound just like the kids in the garage next door.” (Or, I guess these days, “The kids with Garageband on their Macbook in the apartment next door”).

Though never drenched in overproduced studio whitewash, The Raveonettes’ records never sound terribly organic either. Like T.Rex or Bowie, they always take the completely familiar and drop them at the edge of the uncanny valley. They understand that even if you’re singing about something simple like taking a walk with a girl, the listener should feel like they’re talking a walk on a movie set of an idealized New York full of overblown grit and glamour, not on the street just outside the window.

Of course some of their albums are more successful at this than others. Their least successful was probably their second full-length (and last on a major label), Pretty In Black (2005). At the time of its release I felt they’d made an error taking the fuzz and feedback out of the mix, making their rock’n’roll revival a little too authentic (ergo boring). Certainly the too reverent cover of “My Boyfriend’s Back” was just as ill-advised as Twisted Sister‘s career-ending cover of “Leader of the Pack.”

Though it’s improved with age, Pretty In Black lacks not fuzz and feedback so much, but just a certain uncanny oddness.  The songs are actually a pretty solid set of pop ditties, but the world has been lousy with solid pop ditties for decades. The Raveonettes strength (like T.Rex, like Bowie) had always been to take ordinary pop ditties and make them sound extraordinary (usually, yes, with fuzz and feedback, but sometime other tricks as well).

This four song promo EP, A Touch of Black, which preceded the release of Pretty in Black, is quite a bit more successful from an artistic stand point. And, thus, a little baffling. The lead track is the best from the album, and one of their all-time great singles, “Love In A Trashcan“. Though a little cleaner than their preceding work, it still has that Ed Wood meets The Ventures excitement of Whip It On. So does the first of three non album tracks,  “I Wanna Be Taken“, a dirty little rocker, darker and weirder than anything on Pretty in Black.

Even darker and even weirder is a somnolent cover of Buddy Holly‘s “Everyday” featuring Martin Rev and Mo Tucker (!) with Christmas chimes and Metal Machine Music guitars. It’s sort of Muzak for the Mall of the Damned. It’s everything their faithful “My Boyfriend’s Back” should have been but wasn’t; everything the whole album should have been but wasn’t. This pretty terrific EP is actually a pretty misleading representation of the album.

Supposedly with Pretty In Black they (or Columbia) were trying to distance themselves from the Jesus and Mary Chain comparisons their obvious love of The Shangri-Las, Beach Boys and white noise had heaped upon them. Ironically, the album garnered even more comparisons to JAMC by way of their more acoustic-leaning sophomore album Darklands. So it’s understandable The Raveonettes didn’t put the completely fuzz-free acoustic number “Railroad Tracks” on. Though a decent tune, it’s perhaps the most genuinely Jesus and Mary Chain-esque song they’ve ever recorded. It sounds exactly like something off Stoned and Dethroned.

That album is actually a better comparison to Pretty In Black than Darklands. Stoned and Dethroned was the album where JAMC tried to throw off the shackles of fuzz, reverb and feedback and revealed there wasn’t much underneath. Nothing we hadn’t already heard from mainstream rockers a million times too many. Both bands returned to a harsher sound after their respective experiments in the mundane.

Perhaps swapping out “Everyday” for “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Wanna Be Taken” and “Vamp Scratch Whore” (the excellent b-side of “Love in a Trashcan”) for a couple others wouldn’t have saved Pretty In Black, but it sure would have made A Touch of Black a lot less baffling—though less sought-after—an EP.


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