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Band of Skulls

Baby Darling Doll Face Honey

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Label: Shangri-La

Timing, in music as in comedy, is everything. Had it been released in, say, 2003, UK trio Band of Skulls’ Baby Darling Doll Face Honey would have been greeted with either critical spooge or critical scorn; it’s hard to be certain of which. It’s easier to say that it would have been issued on a major label. But in 2009, it’s barely been noticed. By now, The White Stripes are anomalous within indie fandom, Vashti Bunyan is a cooler ancestor than Jimmy Page and most of the no-frills guitar-bass-drum outfits signed in the Strokes-Stripes-Hives fiending frenzy have slinked quietly back into local dive bar-obscurity. So instead of being the Bush to the Stripes’ Nirvana or the Donovan to their Dylan, Band of Skulls are a jolly fun retread, a newfangled simulation of a six-year-old album meant to sound like a 30-year-old album. It fills a void that didn’t really exist back before Barack Obama was a household name.

There’s nothing particularly original or contemporary about Baby; with its “heys” and “ohs,” it’s defiantly untrendy and inauthentic. But authenticity is little more than a concept that helps hippies and purists sleep, a crutch for snoots who’d rather stroke their goatees to Grizzly Bear than pump their fists to Avril Lavigne. But even Grizzly Bear fans would shave their beards and raise their beers for first single “I Know What I Am.” It’s a big, dumb, fun stomper that’s as simple and as universal as its title. It’s almost a jock jam, wouldn’t be out of place at a strip club and bound to supplant Matt and Kim in Bacardi’s next ad campaign. In the pantheon of major 2009 singles, it’s more “My Life Would Suck Without You” than “My Girls.” It throbs like a smitten heart, and is what so little indie rock has been this year: sexy. Not satin sheets and early morning pillow talk-sexy, but late-night-coke-binge humping-in-the-bathroom-stall sexy.
It was an iTunes hit for about a week: not coincidentally, it was given away for free. Then, it quickly and unjustly faded from consciousness. It is, by far, Band of Skulls’ crowning achievement. “Patterns” is a distant second, mainly because it’s essentially a rewrite of “I Know What I Am,” only with harder riffs where the chorus should be, and even sillier lyrics. The rest of the album runs the gamut from pretty good to not bad. “Fires” and “Honest” might as well be a slightly tougher Coldplay—never mind that the singer on the latter is a lady: Emma Richardson, who also plays bass and can sing rings around Meg White, though not her more obvious idol Nico.

But it’s frontman Russell Marsden, with his wounded warble and scorching guitar solos, who draws the clearest White Stripes parallel. Marsden not only mimics his idol’s axe and throat shredding; he even fires a couple shots in Jack White’s gender wars. “I might be a fan of your insolence/ But that don’t make you the innocent,” he snips in the twitchy “Death by Diamonds and Pearls,” not a Jacked-up Prince cover, but a firm dismissal of female materialism. “Hollywood Bowl” offers male and female viewpoints on a drunken date rape, one that has an unsettling, befuddling twist. The chorus of “Impossible” proclaims “I am a man ’cause you said I am,” echoing the burdens of masculinity White has lamented over since “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman.”

The question looming over such a Stripes-indebted album is less about Band of Skulls’ legacy-they’ll be lucky to be a historical blip- and more about that of the White Stripes. A quick scan of the college radio dial shows the Stripes influence to have waned around 2004, while everyone from Broken Social Scene to the Postal Service casts a longer shadow. Castrated psychedelia, knotty dance-punk and over-intellectual fairy tales have just about rendered loud guitars and anthemic choruses passé. Were Jack and Meg mere revivalists instead of the revisionists, or even the revolutionaries, we once thought? Band of Skulls are too shallow to offer any answers. They just have a raucously good time raising the question.

by Charles A. Hohman

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