I think I first heard them in about 1982. Guitarist Jeff McDonald and his bassist brother Steven were still in their teens. I was a fan of their early glam-trash-punk abrasions. Born Innocent, with killer tracks like “Linda Blair” – good stuff. From 1984, Teen Babes from Monsanto was as kool as its title; purveying low culture thrills ala Sonic Youth, but the McDonald brothers offered melodic twists well beyond Sonic Youth’s sing to the chords school of songwriting. Neurotica, released in 1987 perfected their sensibility. Its glammy vision - freakbeat, drug through the gutter of the New York Dolls and put through the Back from the Crypt grinder – was Redd Kross fully realized. Even if only Jeff could buy a drink legally.
I was even pretty thrilled through Third Eye, a chiming, pure pop distillation of their gnarlier selves, released on Atlantic in 1990. My crew played the shit out of it, turned people on to it, but then grunge came along. It was shitty timing for Redd Kross. Their sassy, suburban snarl, unafraid of androgyny, was anything but Eddie Vedder flannel. Their closest kinship by then may have been to bands like Dramarama (a fine, fine outfit indeed), who were still pretty burly by comparison.
Redd Kross’ other Nineties releases were fresh, melodic and rocking. But somehow their sound lost some of its distinction as the band shot for a little deeper commercial penetration. Somehow it seemed too safe, too Material Issue or something, after their Eighties stuff. Then, they disappeared.
Fifteen years disappeared.
They re-emerge on Merge Records with Researching the Blues.
It is so good.
It’s the kind of good – so rocking, so stacked with invention and turn of phrase – that its instantly classic songs hit you like a ton of bricks (“Stay Away From Downtown”) first; then give way to the subtle hooks of (at first) less arresting songs (“Winter Blues”).
Title track, “Researching the Blues,” initially inspired by the scholarly, but gritty passions of John and Alan Lomax, is a fond, but scathing rebuke to a friend turning down every wrong street and dark alley (“You just can’t win, strung out on the devil again”). “Researching” has a brooding, insistent edge that matches the lyric’s darkness. The devil appears again (“the devil inside your head”) in “Stay Away from Downtown.” This song is the embodiment of a power-pop performance, with no neglect in the power department. Jeff McDonald and Robert Hecker’s interlocking, riff off riff, guitar lines propel the song. Drummer Roy McDonald (no relation) holds it all together with rock-ribbed Ringo drive and occasional Moon bursts. Jeff and Brother Steven’s harmony vocals remind how potent sibling harmonies can be (Everlys, Davies, … you get the picture) At 2:40 the “yeah, you” vocals hit, the “sha la las” enter at 2:52. Shortly after, you knock yourself upside the head and realize – damn, this is in the same league with Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” – a kitchen sink of power moves and pop turns.
The down and dirty vibe persists with “Uglier” (co-written by the McDonald brothers, Anna Waronker, and Charlotte Caffey – of the Go Gos and Jeff McDonald’s missus), a nightmare of psychic disintegration complete with “Sympathy for the Devil” style “whoo-whoos.” Here, Redd Kross sounds a little like Urge Overkill circa Saturation. A shift to the minor key and a Big Star vibe is well timed for “Dracula’s Daughter.” “Meet Frankenstein” is a charmer, clocking in at 1:45 that betrays an omnipresent Beatle influence (especially John Lennon).
The lurching syncopation of “One of the Good Ones” evokes the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” while there’s a punkier edge to “The Nu Temptations” that reminds that Redd Kross grew up in the era of the Zeros and Avengers, and with more than a little Black Flag and X ringing in their ears. Steve McDonald also play bass with Keith Morris’s (Circle Jerks) new hardcore outfit, Off. Much of the band’s genius is in the effortless way they synthesize Cali-punk aggression with Merseyside melody.
“Winter Blues” is psych-pop, reminiscent of the “Paisley Underground” era of L.A. rock. It has echoes of everything from ‘California Dreamin’” to “Rain” – beautiful, dream-like harmonies, a weeping, very George Harrison slide guitar solo, and a “radiation wave” that evokes a kinship with Fountains of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe.”
Researching draws to a close with the Pete Townshend-like acoustic bash of “Hazel Eyes.” The subtle, yet soaring power-pop arrangement shares qualities with Tommy Keene and Teenage Fanclub. A nicely placed breakdown to bass and drums, followed by a psychedelic guitar squall, leads back in to the choruses that fade the song, and the album out.
Ten songs that clock in under thirty-three minutes, with more power, melody and intelligence than most bands summon in a career. Researching the Blues is a stunning return to form and beyond from Redd Kross. An album with more fresh authority than one would ordinarily expect from a veteran band after a long layoff. But then it’s no ordinary album.