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The Chrome Cranks - Diabolical Boogie

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Artist: The Chrome Cranks

Album: Diabolical Boogie

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Jan. 30, 2007

The Chrome Cranks came at the tail end of the trash rock vibe that ran through the underground and overlapped through post-punk, noise rock and grunge. This frayed thread of bands took the Stooges notion of a "white" blues to heart. Ignoring punk's speed and wipe-the-slate attitude, theydwelled on it's simplicity and loathing. In retrospect, these bands looked and sounded remarkably cohesive. The look: strung-out frontman , aloof guitarists, garish shirts. The sound: bass up front, sometime as the only steady element, blues leads that tremble into pure texture, drum hits that literally incorporate trash, and a singer with a forced baritone surrendering to his id. The cohesiveness is remarkable because the founding bands arrived at similar sounds from such different sources of inspiration: the Cramps were rockabilly crate-diggers, the Birthday Party's earliest work borrowed arty decadence from Roxy Music, and the Gun Club sought to exorcise Jesus out of Country & Western longing. Whether the project started in Melbourne, Providence or Berlin, it seemed like sooner or later Kid Congo Powers or Bob Bert would get involved. Chrome Cranks had Bob Bert.

It all waned quickly after the the Pulp Fictionphenomenon brought the aesthetic out in the open. Cave paintings weren't intended to have a flashlights shone upon them. The Cranks weren't the peak of the form (as the liner notes by singer Peter Aaron all too modestly admit), so this odds and ends collection comes from the very deepest crevasses of the genre - 7"s, covers, unreleased demos from the band's implosion. But everything here rocks. It makes the case that they didn't get the attention they deserved.

Aaron's notes are great. He is still shaken by the band's demise a decade ago, still groping to determine how they fit in, still nervous that they might have had too narrow a focus. He quotes Ellington, talks about stealing riffs from Abba. That clear-mindedness is quite a contrast with the writhing ghoul in the photos and the lounge-metal sounds. He suggests that if you are new to the band, Diabolical Boogie might not be the best place to start, then recommends their debut. I'm not sure I agree. This collection gets around one of the problems with trash rock: in the quest to be as thick and primal as possible, an album-length running time can be wearing. Many of the best records from this scene were four and six song EPs. Boogie throws out 37 songs and a few videos - there's no way to digest it all at once. Like the Guinness Book freak who ate a bicycle, you know you have to do it one rusty piece at a time. So while this is missing great tracks, like "Doll in a Dress," it's also covers a lot of range, and belies the narrow focus Aaron frets about. Their first single, "Eight Track Mind" has a spark and drone missing from the album version, by which time they'd learned to fully torture the song.

Coming as they did from the peak of the tribute album fad, a third of these tracks are cover versions. The Cranks so subsume some of these songs that even familiar riffs don't readily identify themselves. Daniel Johnson and Pere Ubu get toughened up. Television, Devo and even Brainiac get their Delta borrowings emphasized. Aaron writes that the greatest rock bands "recognized the to-be-feared spirit of the blues" but that rather than trying to avoid or embrace those blues roots, they "spat in it's face, punched it in the gut and made it their own." It's a good summation of what the Cranks could do to a song from any genre. Unlike, say, Killdozer, none of these covers get campy or absurd. While hardly reverent, they were sincere in trying to capture whatever exposed nerves attracted them to the tune in the first place.

There's a reason the guys in these bands dressed like Neil Diamond. Matching Blind Lemon Jefferson or Iggy was beyond reach. And no matter how witty or steeped in American vernacular, no matter how they tried to connect to the rawest bits of the past, they weren't trying for Dylan. But a second-rate AM version of Dylan who managed a few plain and powerful songs? That was within reach. Diamond took himself too seriously. And probably got more than Dylan anyways. His ambitions were in the right place.

The Cranks could make the lushest reverb sound sickly. They could build a song up from a walking bassline until it was so contorted it was tripping on itself. But the roughest tracks on Diabolical Boogie, the sort of things that could be overdriven blurs, are the most powerful. "Stuck In a Cave," recorded live on the radio, hardly moves off of two chords. They jangle, then swing, then pummel those two chords. Do yourself a favor and take out the earbuds for this collection - without low end, you'll miss a big part. This music wants to hit you physically, and needs to travel through air to do so. The air will be staler for it, but you'll wish you were in the room, right in front of them.

By Ben Donnelly

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