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The Dwarves / Armitage Shanks - The Dwarves Must Die / Urinal Heap

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Artist: The Dwarves / Armitage Shanks

Album: The Dwarves Must Die / Urinal Heap

Label: Sympathy for the Record Industry / Damaged Goods

Review date: Nov. 17, 2004

There are few acts that have had the stamina not to grow at all. Knowing the depths of one's talent, and never overstepping those boundaries is a feat unto itself. A few bands have had long careers and never felt the urge to expand on their original formula: The Ramones, AC/DC, Motörhead. They were cartoons to start with, but their lack of desire to become three-dimensional is stunning. Even past their prime, they could dish out some songs that did justice to what came before.

The Dwarves, for a while, looked like they could join the company of the elite morons of rock. In the early ’90s, punk rock in it original toxic form was fading fast. Underground bands that were more instrumentally creative started dropping the punk label as the indie-rock pigeonhole took shape. Bands that remained more closely allied to the original punk vision, like Bad Religion or Fugazi, were replacing four letter words with four syllable words and inching toward upstanding citizenship. The Dwarves unloaded the 14-minute Blood Guts and Pussy onto this increasingly inoffensive scene. Fifteen songs, every one was obnoxious, with lines like "Give me AIDS...I just wanna get laid." They went way too far in a way rock hadn't in a while. They knew enough about hooks and dynamics to make each blast distinct, unlike the grindcore of the time. As unhinged as it was, the Dwarves created 15 variations on really fast without washing out into blearrgh sameness.

They put out a few more strong singles and cleverly grotesque albums and climaxed it with faking the death of their guitarist. That stunt was hard to top, and there were years of silence. Since showing up again, they've tried to expand their sound, including some electronic touches. Those attempts fizzle on The Dwarves Must Die.

The warning signs are there from the start; it opens with a pro wrestling announcer reading off a dozen prank phone call-style names of "members" of the band as if to warn that this is going to be huge and hilarious. Some songs attempt a similar sort of Farrelly Brother's humor. Some try to collage pop styles. None of it works. The rapping of "Demented" is punctuated with a nasal Rocky Horror glam chorus. This kind of juxtaposition might work coming from a band like Ween, who can pile genre lampoons into a giant goof. Here it sounds like an attempt to keep up with the Beastie Boys, circa 1998.

An even worse attempt at hip hop, "Massacre" bothers to dis MTV and Creed. Elsewhere, they insult Salt Lake City and the Osmonds. Surely, these victims are devastated. The Beastie-style name-dropping is just as witless. Let it be known that the Dwarves share some qualities with Steve McQueen.

It's pretty clear what is driving the Dwarves contempt these days. Not drugged up decadence or self-loathing. They take a swipe at the "Queens of the Trust Fund" 'cause they wish they were music industry insiders, too. Envy has no place in sarcasm, and the slickness of the genre-hopping on this record deflates the attitude that singer Blag tries to bring to the mic. These guys clearly do care, otherwise crossover calculations wouldn't be so exposed.

They claim they "don't give a fuck about punk rocking no more," but still fill the other half of the record with 100-second buzzsaw tunes. None of the short tracks are impressive, and they're as crisply overproduced as any Blink 182 song, but at least they sound competent. The cover art has some impressive shock value, with a bloody crucified midget and not just one, but two instances of male full frontal. Less self-consciousness and a lot less polish would suit future attempts to extend their catalog. Or just quit.

Armitage Shanks showed up around the same time as the Dwarves, playing the same ’70s style punk a decade too late. Named for the manufacturer of the urinals in every pub in London, they romp through covers of The Who and Sam & Dave like a beery old British party band.

But their brains remain intact. Urinal Heap is plain, hard-hitting mid-tempo punk. "Ladyboy," with its stuttering Oi chords, falls somewhere between a footballer chant and a skinhead headbutt. But it does recount a night with a transsexual, far funnier and more challenging than anything the Dwarves cook up.

When they muster some contempt for "trousers slightly flared" the bile is outdated, but oddly charming. Another cover, the Television Personalities' "14th Floor" is a 1978 rant about tower-block living. But there is a poignancy that the song's complaints are still relevant, and that the Shanks still feel like complaining about them. The cockney accents are thick and thuggish throughout, full of 'armonies that don't quite 'armonize. It toughens up the cover versions, and makes the originals as blunt as nightsticks. This is a Billy Childish production, which is to say that the production is completely unadorned, save that strange energy he brings out in simple riffs.

For the last three decades, there's probably been a dozen strong, neglected records like this every year, sitting beneath the underground, all in the same stripped-down yobber mode, all easy to overlook. Some years, like when Stiff started putting out pub rock or when Sub Pop started diversifying their sound, these records get a little notice. But the magic of a record like Urinal Heap is due to the clear fact that the Shanks don't give a damn that they're way down at the bottom. That the Dwarves briefly broke out of this gutter is a credit their rush of inspiration, but it sure doesn't guarantee a musical career. Plain old bad attitude ain't hard to get right, but it sure is easy to get wrong.

By Ben Donnelly

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