Raw beats, loud guitars and some hyperactive fondling of gadgets that usually spend a life sentence under spare cables and extension cords in some dirty-ass rehearsal space. OK, let me help you form a clearer picture: The Stooges mud-wrestling The Minutemen while Bob Pollard tunes his guitar. Hipster comparisons, done!
Pick It Up picks up where we last left our stranded heroes at the end
their previous album, 2002's The Great Plains of San Francisco. Only they've
used those two years wisely, refining and even improving their songwriting. I'm
not sure, but I think some of these tunes may actually have themes as well.
One of the standout tracks on Pick It Up, "TEENA," is filled with serpentine
references wrapped around a healthy dose of selfish lust ("…So put your head
down on my shoulder/ I'm just a saber-toothed cobra!"), while a few tracks earlier, "Automobile" kicks
it into high gear by objectifying the song's protagonist, and marrying visions
of animal rage and an out-of-control touring van. I dare you to find a better
song that has "masticating mandible" in it's lyrics.
The Slats are kicking ass and taking names this time around. "Hi, would you like a serving of everything you liked on our last effort [I'll get to that in a minute], and not have it sound like it was recorded at the corner pub?"
Let me add that they have a distinct style (dare I say, "signature" sound?). Brian Cox and Jon Hansen harmonize and exploit their complementary voices with much success. They go from smooth monotone crooning to overdriven rants spiked with a healthy dose of saliva throughout Pick It Up. Meanwhile Mark Tietjen reminds these guys that the drummer is always right.
In between some welcome knob-twiddling and sampling in the bookends of this album lies a more traditional (term used very loosely) song form, but you never forget who you're listening to. Cox plays a four-string guitar when he's not abusing the bass (Hansen also shares bottom-end duties), and though I hate to admit it, I don't miss the two strings he ignores.
It's this kind of creative experimentation with man and machine that drives the
music in this collection. Coupled with their frequent use of alliteration, stream
of consciousness and powerful imagery in their lyrics, the dynamics on songs
like "Another Physical Reaction," "The Diabetic Coma," "TEENA" and "I Believe
Timothy McVeigh" ("I dropped a black letter cherry bomb on the government") take
a trip to some planet on which you'll find a small town filled with fractured
pop-nuggets flowing through its streets like a parade of floats.
The Slats definitely have a knack of getting the most out of their instruments, which includes their voices, and not have you notice till the third listen that anything weird was happening. Damn they're sneaky! What I really like about their sonic adventures, though, is they practice the art of not overdoing it, and use subtlety as a tool to enhance a tune that could turn out to be quite dull if left untreated.
So why don't more people know about The Slats? Maybe it's because they're from Iowa City. I don't mean to offend anyone from that area; all I'm saying is last I heard, the Hawkeye State wasn't exactly a hotbed for chic rock reporters and industry types to gather on a random weeknight. Too bad The Slats are a band tighter than those acid-washed Lee's from 1986 that haven't been able to find their way out of my closet's bottom-left corner.
The Great Plains of San Francisco (The Tyros Label) was my first introduction to The Slats. I made my purchase at a local basement show towards the end of their 2003 tour. For as much as I love to support the struggling artist, you have to impress me before I plop down some dead prez on your merch table. I've been disappointed too many times with great live acts that sound like shit on record, but this transaction was regret-free. For those of you thinking I have to say nice things about this album because I paid for it, please take off that undersized T-shirt you're wearing it's constricting the flow of blood.
Some of the more memorable tracks in the early half of this recording, "Weapon That I Used," "Payola Granola" and "Hate Now" will have you singing along in your off-key, tone-deaf voice after just a couple of spins. The latter of these, with its anthemic chorus, is one of The Slats' most straightforward rock-out tunes, until it breaks down into a cyclone of chaos at about the 1:20 point. They just couldn't resist putting an end to the bedroom fist-pumping action that this music may inspire from time to time.
The rest of The Great Plains… does not reside in Slouchville by any stretch. "Obliterate
These Beats" and "Tank Bikini" will leave tire marks on your face. Not bad for
an LP that sounds like it was recorded in a day on a budget of a few hundred
bucks. There is definitely a glimmer of brilliance underneath the frayed upholstery,
and ultimately they manage to accomplish quite a bit with what they've got. Needless
to say, it was a great introduction to this band, and Pick It Up only
on their special formula.
These boys are just a handful of tracks away from recording a classic.