Rock Album Review: Birds of Play

The current kings of sly-clown fox-rock, Eagles of Death Metal and Electric Six know how to put the fun back into rock and roll.

The Eagles of Death Metal, “Death by Sexy” (Downtown); Electric Six, “Senor Smoke” (Metropolis Records)

By Milo Miles

Rock and roll used to be a joke. The most dangerous joke in music. But the performers were in on the gag, and its subversion. When rock was sock-hop music, the guardians of mainstream showbiz, let alone the poobahs of high culture, often took to the laugh-them-out-of-existence routine. Borrowing from the jesters of rhythm-and-blues, rockers from Jerry Lee Lewis to Little Richard to Bo Diddley were happy to spew crazed nonsense lyrics and laugh along. Because they knew who the joke was on.

The bigger the rock phenomenon got, however, the more humor, however caustic, came to seem not profound enough. People remembered that Bob Dylan was a “poet” but forgot he was also a trickster. Sure, rockers continued to have the occasional hit with perfect-joke tunes like “Judy in Disguise” by John Fred and His Playboy Band and “Do Ya” by the Move, but the last rock style that preferred silly over snarly and goofy over glorious was the glam movement of the ’70s. Those proto-punks knew if you made it loud and unrefined, the clownish tunes would have jawbreaker punch. But soon, even if you wore spangles and feather boas, the sock-hop was over. Hi-decibel rock still powered parties, but it was doomy, tormented stuff, or seething with rage. Time for a corrective.

The current kings of sly-clown fox-rock are Electric Six and, especially, Eagles of Death Metal. Curiously, both bands are a shifting cast of players surrounding jesters-in-chief: Dick Valentine (Tyler Spencer) for Detroit’s Electric Six, and childhood buddies-turned-bandmates Jesse “The Devil” Hughes and Josh “Baby Duck” Homme for LA’s Eagles of Death Metal (EoDM). And, aptly, both bands connect with vintage heavy-rock glammers Queen: Electric Six cover Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” and Valentine has appeared incarnating late singer Freddie Mercury in a video, while Homme has said of Hughes, “He’s like Freddie Mercury’s straight nephew.” He does look the part.

Queen could be campy, but rarely as outright absurd as these two bands, which are also more feral and guttural, borrowing from “Exile on Main Street” Rolling Stones, the New York Dolls and mascara-era Iggy Pop — all of whom toss off more laugh lines than their images suggest.

Electric Six is big in Britain, scoring Top 10 singles with “Danger! High Voltage” and “Gay Bar,” which suggest Spencer’s basic strategy of fraught titles attached to frothy (but not mindless) and catchy (but also muscular) songs that zing toward tomorrowland (“Future Boys”), yesterville (“Jimmy Carter”) or the corner kink shop (“Bite Me”). On the new “Senior Smoke” album, most of Electric Six’s jittery touches of electrodisco and cartoon dystopia (evil boys eating evil fries) bolster Spencer’s manic motions on stage. He’s a kinetic clown who knows right now he can score more points knocking the President because he can’t rock than by calling him a war criminal.

The Eagles of Death Metal, on the other backhand, derive their aggression from sci-fi prog rock and psychedelic metal (now called “stoner rock” or “desert rock,” after the dry part of SoCal where Homme invented the form about 10 years ago). Skeptics wonder how bands like EoDM can happily slam out their huge, crunchy riffs in the wake of Spinal Tap. That’s easy: they understand the difference between bands that tell jokes and bands that are jokes.

At Boston’s Paradise club on April 24, 2006, the EoDM packed the house to the top of the old auto-dealership pillars — on a Monday night. There’s a ravenous hunger for the unadorned rock-party wham of EoDM, but it has to have on-target taste in trash and nonstop panache. If it was easy to restart the sock-hop, lots of bands would do it. Homme has said that analyzing EoDM songs makes you part of the joke, and that’s certainly true. Every track on the debut “Peace Love Death Metal” delivered a billboard-sized announcement of what style it was ripping off, and how much fun it was to do. And anybody idiot enough to try to dig into the depths of “Death by Sexy” numbers like “I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)” and “I Like To Move in the Night” is idiot enough to inscribe “What, Me Worry?” on the head of a pin.

But there are vivid reasons why this band had the crowd screaming all night. Jesse Hughes radiates the glee of a man who has discovered his calling long after he thought he might. He thrives on the role of high-pitched singer-horndog-lowlife, and he finds exactly the right tone so you know he’s winking at you without ever being a parody. Drummer Samantha “Hot Damn Sweet Sam” Maloney (Hole, Motley Crue) is both the hardest rhythm-driver Homme has worked with on any of his projects, and a disarming enthusiast, who grins and claps after tunes ends as though she’s just another reveler. Lead guitarist Dave Catching can kick some shred and feedback around the room without having to worry about ripping a hole in reality. And Homme can play bass and fade back from his usual frontman duties with Queens of the Stone Age. Although he’s right in the pocket with the beat, he’s relaxed enough he could be on the beach.

What a superb payoff. This Paradise crowd was way more crazed than the one who saw Van Halen there way back when, whooping happier than the devotees of Patti Smith, equal in enthusiasm to the David Johansen fans who I thought would never be matched. It’s probably too late to make the rock joke dangerous again. But Eagles of Death Metal show how to make it delirious fun.

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