Box Elders

Alice and Friends

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Label: Goner Records

I’m a sucker for those Time-Life music collection infomercials. You know the ones: the jolly half-hours of TV where some moderately attractive woman who isn’t too young nor too old is teamed up with some graying star of decades past for the purpose of giving the old boilerplate speech about how their particular era of tunes was A) really the golden age of pop, B) not played on the radio any longer or C) can only be found by rounding up old records in grotty music stores. I can remember that before Sha Na Na’s Bowser ever teamed up with his (comparatively) young chippy hostess, cable TV frequently ran a commercial for a Rockin’ Instrumentals set including the ’50s likes of Santo and Johnny’s immortal “Sleepwalk” and one of the roughly six million versions of “Apache.” Included there though was a song I doubt I’d ever hear if it weren’t for that commercial- Dave “Baby” Cortez’s “Happy Organ.”

Recorded in a mellow fashion once in ’59, Cortez laid it down once more in ’60 for RCA, this one with the drums and roller rink-organ pushed far up in the mix. Cortez’s organ on this track sounds so exuberant and gonzo that when it’s carrying the already-jovial tune, it comes off as positively demented and a strangely fitting soundtrack for the milkshake pink and diner chrome version of the ’50s we’ve been fed since Happy Days. When I woke up recently at the very un-rock writer hour of 7:00 AM and threw on the debut from Omaha’s Box Elders, Alice and Friends, I was caught quite unaware by hearing what sounded like the ghost of Dave “Baby” Cortez playing along with these confectionery garage punks who named their record after a Korean barbecue restaurant supposedly run by a cult.

While it wasn’t Cortez himself, the organist is no less kooky; it’s played by erstwhile drummer Dave Goldberg- even during live performances. Brothers Clayton (bass) and Jeremiah (guitar) McIntyre caterwaul tooth-decaying melodies back and forth on latter day garage nuggets like “Jackie Wood,” and “Stay,” which is tricked out with female harmonizing, all so sweet that it reminds me of the time I caught a college roommate pouring Karo on pancakes. Though as sugary as the tunes are, they are tempered by the indie rock production of the day- plenty of meters must have ticked over into the red during its recording and the record’s reverb makes the imaginary garage they play in sound more like a cave in the mind’s eye.

Alice and Friends is ultimately somewhat front-loaded; by the time “Necro” and “Ronnie Dean” roll around, the boys’ welcome starts wearing a little thin. While “what do you call it when you love someone who’s dead?” got a grin out of me the first time I’d heard it, Box Elders lack the perversion of the Black Lips to successfully pull off the joke, ultimately sounding too tasteful for it. “Ronnie Dean” is the kind of cutesy-sounding story song you’d only put up with from the Coral, if only for the Anglophilia all of us harbor in some level of our being.

But shit, that organ! It’s that point in the record that I stopped taking notice of it- on the early tracks it exploded the songs, helping them achieve some speed of breakneck-stupid happy. That sugar rush couldn’t be sustained, as short as this half-hour set is. Still, Alice and Friends ain’t at all bad for a band that’s playing the same kind of music as everyone else. In the meantime, someone should hook Cortez up with Rick Rubin to produce a comeback record, seeking the true roller rink essence of his halcyon, candy-coated days.

by Chris Middleman

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