John Wilkes Booze
Telescopic Eyes Glance The Future Sick
Kill Rock Stars
ecrudescing rock back down to its basic fibers—stomp, strum, and fury—is a task that most bands attempt on some “down home,” “earthy” record, and, to John Wilkes Booze’s credit, most don’t try it with half of their undergraduate gusto and eagerness. Telescopic Eyes Glance The Future Sick isn’t nearly as high-minded (pompous?) as Booze’s debut, 2004’s Five Pillars of Soul, which paid endless homage to (among others) Yoko Ono, Marc Boland, and Patty Hearst (!). So right off you know they’re a slice brainier than other bands that attempt to, ahem, kick out the jams. But what’s actually surprising is Telescopic’s presence as a dizzy, academic tilt-a-whirl of a record.
Lead singer Seth Mahern must be the guy with the T. Rex sweet-tooth; his vulpine, cracker-soul falsetto is the immediate attention grabber, even when some of the band’s deftest touches, like the great use of alto sax on “Barker Ranch Blues,” sometimes slip under the drunken radar. Weak band name aside, John Wilkes Booze hits some great caustic notes when they let their neat, MC5-ish rock structures get tossed in a pot of wah-wah pedal and autoharp slurry.
Oddly enough, like many recent rap albums (and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this band was filled with hip-hop heads), what sometimes can emerge from this fun little melting pot is a gaggle of three or four concept tracks that bludgeon the album. “Always Is Always Forever,” aside from having an amateur title that should go to a also-ran like the Secret Machines, is nothing more than a gothic, 4-minute guitar exorcism and choral chant cribbed directly from the notebook of Swans. (The vacant, “experimental” 90-second song has officially become the white man’s skit.)
Recording in Bloomington, Indiana, Telescopic doesn’t so much hit the post-White Stripes (and I think the Stripes have gotten big enough where we can demarcate their place in history) garage rock nail on the head as much as it tries to grab a nail gun and board up the buildings of its ancestors. Dirty hunks of coal like “Bernadine” aren’t the sound of circumventing the garage rules so much as they are vandal tags. Calling a band ambitious is usually a silver bullet, but here I think it’s both honest and fair to call JWB a band with a mind-set: albeit one that resembles a smart grad student after three beers.
Indiana University, another Bloomington resident, and a torch bearer for all schools seeking the coveted number one party school ranking, seems to get the same semi-bum rap as JWB. Messy and wild are two fair terms to describe both, but sit down for a while and there is plenty to listen to, plenty to absorb and enjoy. Like the liver-flogging IU, JWB has its share of meat-headed, go-nowhere shenanigans, but there’s some substantial merit and smarts behind both. In the spirit of the wise old band’s words: It’s educational.