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Thunderbirds are Now!

French Kiss

ith a record like Justamustache, caveats come first. Detroit-based Thunderbirds are Now! owe a huge debt to their friends and new labelmates, Les Savy Fav. Yeah, it’s a gasoline-town and you expect the grit underneath the fingernails—or the saving graces of a beat and a sweaty dance—blues-rock or techno. Thunderbirds are Now!—fronted by the almost effeminate yelping of leadman Ryan Allen-- are fighting the urge. They abandoned the hopscotch genre-jumping from 2003’s Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.

Of course, yes of course, they embraced retro-punk and the chic dark-browed sounds of post-punk. I hear you. They reek of calculation, of board-room second-think. What can we do to make you prominent? That’s why we’re here. Listen, and by the way which one’s Pink, what do you think of Les Savy Fav? Are you up to it? Can you strangle those guitars and clench your fists in mock teen-angst? Well, can you? Cause if not, we need to look elsewhere. That’s the sound we’ve selected this year.

Their debut on French Kiss, Justamustache, is an almost tantalizing mock-up of cranky angular guitar work and jumpy rhythms. It’ everything you’ve heard referenced and played during bedroom tableaus on The O.C. for the past year and a half. It’s post-punk and it’s dance-punk and Christ it’s tracking all the pulsing geek-muscle in the urban cross-hairs. Misfired keyboard parts drench these hip rhythms with Sterno and blue-fire the ensemble. You hear this in the wind and the rain now. Nature is its alarm. Every track craves self-abuse, drawn to the point of frenzy and submission, cruel rebuke and empathy. The hesitant fact of Justamustache is that this late-era copy is almost indistinguishable from the originals. Make of that what you will.

“(Aquatic Cupid’s) Harpoons of Love” opens with storming tones of welcome and warning. Instruments and vocals, seemingly pulling each other apart, pitch in defiance of natural order. Crude keyboard tones and multiple vocal parts stomp through the grey-night, and bass adds muscle to the mix. A bewitching guitar solo near its end brings it all around to the fire-pit again. On “From: Skulls”, the band’s apocalyptic dance alarum comes to a head, shrieked out on guitar and growling electronics. Baggy and tight in all the wrong places, they make shrewd cacophony of mayhem and trust in you to hear music through the maelstrom.

After the more electronic trio that ends the album—the machine-beat and slow, ice-hot burn of “Bodies Adjust” to the sleep-deprived schizophrenia of the closing “Cobra Feet”—you’re left with a strange breathlessness. Justamustache is undeniably shrewd and decisively carnivorous. It blisters by friction instead of heat. “Oh yes, it’s a mess / But we’re here to clean up” Allen sings on the closer. And yet, despite the exactitude of their wish to mess things up, there’s the lingering accusation of just how much of this ‘inspiration’ was simply the product of sound-cloning.

After all, they readily admit to being huge fans of Les Savy Fav. It’s the kind of admission that can’t help but burn. Ask Foster Wallace about this paradigm; he won’t ever get out of Pynchon’s shadow and he pales in comparison. With dance-punk and freak-pop, the same burdens apply. By year’s end, it’s all a wash, and I suspect by that time, we’ll have far more interesting records to keep us talking. Maybe, appropriately, even one by Thunderbirds are Now!’s new labelmates.

Reviewed by: Derek Miller

Reviewed on: 2005-04-11

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