From a pop standpoint, New York Dolls singer David Johansen sounds like shit — shit in that abstract singer way; intangible like Dylan or, say, Shane McGowan. Truly. See, sounding like shit can be a beautiful thing and Johansen isn't a very good singer; he's a fucking great one. His is a huge voice that grinds and lifts from a storied, glorious past and depth, up through his tiny 120-pound man-boy frame. You can't help but be drawn in, can't help but want to know more about the song, about the band.
God bless producer Todd Rundgren and main songwriters Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain because there's a live "rock 'n' roll band" integrity to these songs and recordings. Sure, the swagger's somewhat refined now, but, really, what's left to do all these decades after "Jet Boy" and "Puss 'n' Boots"? Yet, it's hard to believe this is a modern recording — no pitch correction, no over-tanking guitars, no overblown drums, etc. The songs aren't pinched, quantized, drained of feel, nor ProTooled to death. No, it's a proper rock 'n' roll band that's made a great, balanced rock 'n' roll album the sacred way, with guitars, bass and drums.
In fact, the attitudinal title track and its next-in-line "Muddy Bones" (co-written by Dolls bassist Sam Yaffa — remember Hanoi Rocks?) strut straight outta Max's Kansas City, they're both sooo 1975, the year the original Dolls could've cobbled together album No. 3. (The songs could've fit nicely on Johansen's first solo record too.) Elsewhere, the blue-eyed soul in "Lonely So Long" summons some lower Manhattan nostalgia ("Bleecker and Lafayette"), canorous and juxtaposed against its wonderfully melancholic guitar bridge. "This Is Ridiculous" finger-pistols Chicago Blues and is as authentic as five ivory-hued dudes can be, given Johansen's pitched baritone rasp and his deep, crate-digger'd collection of American blues records.
"My World," the best here, ascends over jungle beats; the Sylvain and Steve Conte acoustic guitars, lovely arpeggios and background vocals lift Johansen as if he's some spiritual leader of Jyotir Math, levitating atop a wall of airy harmonics repeating the mantra "It's got to be my world." It's a rare moment of pure equipoise, and not accidental either; Johansen must be a yogi of sorts — such redemptive ideas color lyrics and juxtapose sweetly with the self and romantic references throughout the album. Johansen's always been too smart and ill-timed for mainstream success, so there's a wink and beatitude (especially in "Exorcism of Despair," which simply rocks) in nearly every line he sings, and you better listen hard or you'll never be in on it.
Maybe to shut mouths (or raise ire) of Dolls purists, the band remade its '73 gem "Trash," transforming it from a sexual-cultural car-crash glitter anthem to a rasta-ish, Babylon-free ditty of happy-sadness. It basically says: Jerry Nolan, Johnny Thunders and Killer Kane are dead. Get past it.
Yaffa and drummer Brian Delaney are as solid as any great rock 'n' roll rhythm section. And guitarist Conte's not filling Johnny Thunders' glitter boots either, doesn't need to — he's got more skill (if less style) — his understated slide on "Making Rain" gives certain sorrow to Johansen's wisdom ("Mending my conflict with circumstance") that would never have made it on to any previous Dolls album. This is the Dolls now and 'Cause I Sez So is one of the year's best albums. Easily.
Brian Smith is the features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].