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Sunday, August 1, 2010

One Dandy Retrospective

In the tradition of classic rock -- and perhaps, contractual obligations -- The Dandy Warhols recently released abroad The Capitol Years, with a stateside release planned for the end of August. Featured on the release are our favorite Dandy jams and singles from their four Capitol releases, as well as one brand-new, previously unreleased song.

First and foremost, as a hardcore fan of the Dandys, I look forward to hearing the new song, and investigate the aesthetic of the release. I am interested in reading between the lines of the release -- that the band leads with "Boys Better," the ill-fated second single from ...Come Down, for which Courtney Taylor-Taylor provides the matter-of-fact note that Capitol failed to promote due to the chart performance of "Not if you were the last junkie on earth" in notorious documentary, Dig!."Holding Me Up," perhaps the most important song of the band's career in terms of linking their new wave / dance aspects to their meandering psychedelia, is the lead song from Odditorium. "Horse Pills" is absent.

As a musician and/or critic, I relish the opportunity to think about what precisely constitutes a discography, and how artistic development of a band is best captured. One of the most interesting aspects of Dig! is the simple note that upon their signing to Capitol Records, the label required the band to take a second attempt at finishing their major-label debut; the first effort is archived as The Black Album. Perhaps unknown to most fans -- myself included -- until last year was the fact that Welcome to the Monkey House featured an entirely separate, prior mix, left unreleased for nearly a decade. These artifacts remain undocumented on the The Capitol Years, which lead me to ask: how do we characterize the Dandys career? Or, what is a retrospective?

I find that one of the most endearing qualities of the Dandys is a pure independence. The band often straddles the line between meaningful free art and pure art-rock excess, but the lessons they provide often indulge in a tradition of psychedelic rock that sometimes flies beneath the surface of the Sgt. Pepper's sixties. Against the pillar of accepted psychedelia -- where Sgt. Pepper's is typically noted as the first meeting between art and pop music (why not "Say Man," by Bo Diddley?)-- we might embrace Notorious Byrd Brothers, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and S.F. Sorrows. In this tradition we will find artistic indulgence alongside the pop development of the rhythm and blues tradition, excessive effects, and meandering passages.

Equally pitted against organic psychedelic -- where subtle productive qualities explore the tradition's folk and country aspects -- and shoegaze -- which is now becoming a fully accepted tradition of focused fuzz and gloom -- meandering passages of joy or bliss provoke memories of the big, loose sounds of the 1970s as manifest throughout the Dandys catalog. My favorite analogy, as the Dandys' psychedelia meets a overt new wave tradition, is Physical Graffiti as a dance record. Often big and loud fuzz sounds are met with sassy or ironic breakdowns, heavy bass, and precise drums.

In terms of the Dandys' own catalog, this development of free art, new wave dance, big, large fuzz, and meandering bliss stands in their Capitol catalog on the structure of their ongoing covert operations. Independence presents itself in surprising ways when it is an authentic phenomenon, and this is the challenge that the Dandys' catalog presents to listeners.

How do you respond to the surprise of freedom when you listen to your favorite records? Or even records you hate? When we find our sensibilities regarding traditional rock or our expectations of a particular strand of psychedelic music to be transgressed by moments of pure freedom or excessive meandering, we might be repulsed, turning away from the potential of exploring open and vacant landscapes, in favor of scavenging familiar and comforting lands. This is the conflict we often find between the accepted, now-institutional development of psychedelic rock in critical circles, and the challenges of actually creating something new, something without bounds.

Isn't this the very tension found in the base of psychedelic rock itself? The mainstream and institutional release of progressive pop against a secret history that is diverse and free? This is the tension that I find at the very core of the Dandys' music, and this is precisely why I find myself returning to each and every one of their records -- mainstream or secret -- time and time again.

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