Sunday, May 15, 2011

Real Life Record Reviews # 1: New York Dolls' latest

Yeah, any excuse to re-run this pic of Syl Sylvain and I.... (pic: Marty Havlik)

It's no secret, my love of the New York Dolls. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me doesn't even need for me to explain it, explain who they are, explain their importance. (Shit, the biggest non-secret in the world is how much I especially owe Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, musically and style-wise.)  I certainly have rejoiced in their decision to reform in 2004, around the core of surviving members Syl Sylvain and David Johansen (and bassist Arthur Kane, who tragically passed away literally days after playing the Dolls' first gigs since 1975). Live, the band is every inch the New York Dolls: That balance of wayward energy and solid guitar raunch and downtown wiseass attitude and Brill Building songwriting and a headful of snot. I have had no complaints there, even with only two original Dolls there.

Still, as this interview I did with him last year proved, Syl Sylvain felt something was wrong. He did not feel the new band was living up to what he felt was the Dolls' "gold standard," as he put it, and that the input of the newer members of the band had compromised the records they'd released in their second act. Indeed, while I found myself enjoying the latter day Dolls albums and felt they'd even created some new Dolls classics (such as "Dance Like A Monkey" and the b-side "Beauty School"), the records felt for the most part like really good David Johansen solo albums. Not a bad thing, but not the New York Dolls.

Apparently, Johansen finally heard what Syl was saying. March saw the release of sessions the Dolls completed last year in England, with the latter day core of Johansen, Sylvain, and drummer Brian Delaney augmented by producer Jason Hill standing in on bass and Blondie guitarist Frankie Infante taking over the Johnny Thunders slot from Steve Conte. (Conte, alongside Dolls reunion bassist Sami Yaffa, has moved on to Yaffa's fellow Hanoi Rocks alum Michael Monroe's current band.) Entitled Dancing Backwards In High Heels (429 Records), the Dolls' fifth LP manages a neat trick: It lives up to Syl's cherished "gold standard," while totally breaking form and advancing the Dolls' sound quite a bit.

The production feels totally alien and quite modern in a lot of respects. You could play Dancing Backwards alongside bands like The Kills and The Raveonettes and it would not seem out of place. But ironically, this very Dolls-y record is the one that sounds less like classic Dolls while still being classic Dolls: There's less guitar raunch per square inch than on any of their records. If anything, Dancing Backwards is a salute to the band's firm roots in girl groups and Brill Building songcraft.

The songs totally carry this record, starting from Johansen's plaintive heart-in-his hands lovers' plea vocal in the opener, "Fool For You Baby." And what you hear, for the most part, is atmospherics: Lush reverb, raindrop background vocals, the warm, ever-present hum of a Hammond B-3. And this production style persists, right through a faithful rendition of Patti LaBelle and The Blue Bells' "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman," swooping strings and all. Even the most Dolls-y track on the record, the anti-hipster/stay-outta-my-city rant "I'm So Fabulous," relies less on powerchords and Thunders-oid amphetamine-Chuck-Berry lead guitar than it does on layers of sax, harmonica, and piano. But it still sounds thoroughly in The Tradition, and Johansen's vocal venom is righteous to behold.

One of the most interesting touches here is the remake of "Funky But Chic," a tune Sylvain and Johansen wrote in the latter stages of the Dolls which didn't get recorded until Johansen included it on his first solo LP in 1978. It beggars a question I've long asked Syl: Will the Dolls finally give proper studio treatments to the great material they wrote for a proposed 3rd studio LP, like "Red Patent Leather" or "Teenage News?" My mouth certainly waters at that idea.

All in all, Dancing Backwards In High Heels has gotten strong play here in the temporary Denver Napalm HQ. There's nothing embarrassing about this record. It's a strong LP that both screams "New York Dolls" while breaking form at once. I could make a really good compilation mini-album out of the strong material from the last two New York Dolls LPs. This is the first one they've done since reforming that's strong all the way through. And that's a beautiful thing.

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