” . . . there’s nothing more comforting than being in a room with my brother where him and our drummer are just talking endlessly about Bob Dylan bootlegs and we have stupid inside jokes about public access shows from 1984. With them I can just turn my brain off and I don’t need to worry about the social aspect of this environment—that’s sorted.”
—Steven McDonald, interviewed in Stereogum, July 30, 2012
Disclaimer: Redd Kross has been an integral part of my life for almost 20 years, so I can’t promise that this review will be 100% objective. I can, however, promise that it will be 100% sincere.
Redd Kross. Oh, where to start? So much history that I can’t cram it all into one review, but chew on this: The band has been around for more than 30 years. Despite various lineup changes, two members have remained steadfast—brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald, now both in their 40s. (Your math is correct; Jeff and Steven started the band at ages 15 and 11, respectively.) And yes, they have been integral to my life, something that can’t be overstated; after all, the name of this website was inspired by the name of one of their albums.
Throughout the band’s existence, Redd Kross may not have released as many “proper” albums as other bands, but they’ve been no less prolific, participating in various soundtracks, tribute albums, singles, EPs, and at least two alter egos (how else do you describe Anarchy Sixx or Tater Totz?). Although their sound has never been what purists might consider punk rock, their attitude has always been. Even the bubblegum pop of 1990’s Third Eye contains a metal tribute to Japanese girl group Shonen Knife. Thus, answering the question, “so what does Redd Kross sound like?” has always been tricky.
Researching The Blues provides a thoroughly satisfying solution. Featuring the band’s mid-’80s lineup of the brothers McD, Roy “no relation” McDonald on drums and Robert Hecker on guitar, the album is short, sharp, and sweet. Don’t let the cast of characters confuse you; those fans expecting a sequel to 1987’s Neurotica will have to look elsewhere.
Researching The Blues is a natural progression of the Redd Kross Sound™. It germinated in 1993’s Phaseshifter and fully blossomed with 1997’s Show World (including its unreleased sibling, Black Shampoo). The songs of that time period are the best, most distinctive, and Redd Kross-iest, and Researching The Blues bears the fruits of those labors, remarkably consistent with that sound and as a self-contained album.
Although they haven’t released an album in 15 years, the sound of Researching The Blues is not a watered-down attempt at a comeback, so the cynics in the crowd can just rid themselves of their schadenfreude-fueled expectations. All the things we love about Redd Kross are there: Jeff’s distinctive vocals, like John Lennon with a dash of Sonny Bono (this is NOT an insult); the Jeff/Steven harmonies; hooky guitars with no ego-stroking solos; pounding drums; groovy bass; weird chord changes; unusual bridges; and lyrical themes.
These are not the pointed pop culture references of Neurotica (Redd Kross was meta before the Internet made it cool). This is the Redd Kross Sound™, remember? To wit: Hollywood, evil, paranoia, stalkers, voices in your head, ugliness, and of course, Hell and the Devil. Redd Kross have never been afraid to point out the nastiness in the world, but they’re not Marilyn Manson or Morrissey. They tell you about it, but they don’t wallow in it, the cynicism always balanced by positivity. In fact, Redd Kross has frequently excelled at beautiful, uplifting songs completely unshackled by corny clichés, a skill other bands would kill for.
The first four songs on Researching The Blues are impeccable, with the title track as in-your-face as any of the band’s best singles. And with lyrics like this, it’s hard to deny that Redd Kross is as sardonically self-aware as ever:
Experience is wisdom
Don’t be ahead of your time
You’ll eat nothing but shit
And never earn a dime
“Stay Away From Downtown” is clearly the next single because it’s equally as good as the first track, but in a different, more pop-friendly way. “Uglier” is the only song on the album that’s credited to anyone other than Jeff McDonald, with Steven, his wife Anna Waronker, and Jeff’s wife Charlotte Caffey also included. While the four of them were the players on the 2002 Ze Malibu Kids album Sound It Out, this song has a much edgier vibe—musically and lyrically—and Steven gives a glorious vocal performance, topping “After School Special” from Phaseshifter. The mournful-yet-beautiful qualities of “Dracula’s Daughter” will remind fans of songs like “Girl God” or “Monolith,” but the song succeeds at being even catchier and has more heavenly harmonies.
The second half of the album is a heavy dose of pure pop bliss. “Meet Frankenstein,” “One Of The Good Ones,” “Choose To Play,” and “Winter Blues” have more than a touch of Rubber Soul and Revolver, a sound Redd Kross have channeled and modernized far better than other bands that claim to be Beatle-esque. Plus, there are thought-provoking and inspirational lyrics in spades. The sound of “The Nu Temptations” is heavier and rocks a’plenty (and I’m going to have to listen to it a lot more before I catch all the subtleties of the lyrics).
The final track, “Hazel Eyes,” takes the main guitar riff from Show World‘s epic “Follow The Leader” and twists it around, adding a weird, warbly sound throughout that sounds like the band’s cover of Shonen Knife’s “Kappa Ex.” There’s a bass solo and an absolutely glorious ending that sounds like the sun rising, which surely can’t be an accident.
When you’re a legendary, hugely influential band who hasn’t released anything in more than two decades, who is your target audience? Fans of Redd Kross will love Researching The Blues and if they don’t, shame on them. The album is also a perfect intro to the band for those who’ve never heard more than a few of their songs. If anything seems familiar to the uninitiated it’s probably because they’ve been listening to the many Redd Kross imitators and not the real thing.
Researching The Blues sounds nothing like anything else that’s out now; it’s the sound of Redd Kross. “It’s just perfection to me is so strange,” sings Jeff in “Hazel Eyes.” Truly, I can’t explain the band any better than that.
Researching The Blues is out today from Merge Records and can be purchased from the label’s website in CD or vinyl (!) format. It’s also available on cassette (!!) from Burger Records. You can also order the album on iTunes, including the bonus track “Pop Show” featuring Astrid McDonald (Jeff’s daughter). Check the band’s website and Facebook page for lots more info and updates. And if you get a chance to see them live, DO NOT MISS IT!
Aug 7: The Roxy – Album Release Show / Los Angeles, CA
Aug 8: Great American Music Hall – ALL AGES! / San Francisco, CA
Sept 1: FYF Fest / Los Angeles, CA
Sept 6: Rickshaw Theatre / Vancouver, BC
Sept 7: Chop Suey / Seattle, WA – Free Show 21+ Must RSVP
Sept 8: MusicFestNW / Portland, OR
Sept 23: DeLuna Fest / Pensacola Beach, FL