The Mindbending Sounds Of …

Currently in competition with the Fleshtones for the title of America’s longest-running, still-extant American neo-garage combo, the Chesterfield Kings — who, like the ’tones, clambered out from amid the detritus of punk’s aftermath in the late ’70s — have unexpectedly served up a collection of all-original tunes. Unexpectedly, because, excluding an early ’90s punk/metal flirtation, pretty much every Kings record has either been dominated by garage and psych covers (such as 1999’s Where The Action Is!, front-loaded with Yardbirds, Kinks, Standells, Electric Prunes, Blues Magoos, etc.) or boasted as its most noteworthy cuts a handful of well-chosen covers (1994’s Let’s Go Get Stoned, in fact, was intended to pay tribute to the Rolling Stones, from actual Stones tunes to Glimmer Twins-ized originals to the Aftermath-like sleeve art). This time out, though, it’s all Kings, all the time, and reports from the trenches are very, very encouraging — right down to the outrageously hirsute visual image the Rochester rockers project on the CD cover.

Right off the bat you get a frontline report from correspondent Little Steven Van Zandt, he of “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” syndicated radio show, who produced, co-wrote and played on the lead track “I Don’t Understand.” (The E Street Band guitarist also contributes a poetic garage parable for the booklet’s liner notes.) That tune, a kind of lost-in-your-memory slice of classic teen love-angst, boasts enough shuddery
fuzztone, chiming Rickenbacker and churning organ to spawn a box set full of neo-Nuggets worship. But wait, as the cliché goes, there’s more. Among the remaining 13 songs — all produced by founding members Andy Babiuk and Greg Prevost — are psychedelic rave-ups (the Yardbirdsesque “Running Through My Nightmares,” gloomy bad-trip epic “Memos From Purgatory” and the sitar-laden, “Paint It Black”-like “Transparent Life”), jangly pop (the Byrdsian “Somewhere Nowhere”) and down ’n’ dirty garage-punk (the sneering Bo Diddleyisms of “Death Is The Only Real Thing,” and the harp-fueled R&B stomper “Non-Entity”).

Operating for more than two decades in the music biz has done naught to dim the Kings’ essential inspiration. If anything, they sound positively reinvigorated. That’s maybe due to the recent rockisback! groundswell that’s made it possible for bands such as the Kings to operate above the radar (if only for a moment until the mainstream’s attention shifts anew). Or perhaps it’s because of something more elemental that, as Little Steven himself might put it, allows the garage genre to continually reinvent itself in its own unique image. Who can say? Regardless, the Kings have delivered an essential artifact that, ultimately, stands tall upon its own merits.

E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].