New York’s The Electric Mess are a garage band, but not in the contemporary sense of the term. No, this group could easily soundtrack any number of the dreams that have unraveled on the back of Lenny Kaye’s beautiful eyelids. It’s the unfettered sound of the ‘60s one-hit Farfisa drenched wonder also known as Nuggets, and on Falling Off the Face of the Earth, they largely do right by it.
But before there was a 2-LP set called Nuggets, there was of course the wave of groups that constitute its enduring essence. Garage bands in a nutshell, doing it live in parking lots and rec-centers and teen dances and opening for larger touring acts (but hardly ever in bars). Sometimes these groups managed to release a single or three that either flopped or maybe hit locally, a few actually growing into nationwide hits. The especially fortunate were able to ride regional or national success and collect enough material for an LP or two before breaking up, the tides turning to more expansive, self-conscious, and heavily psychedelic rock expressiveness.
To expand just a bit, Nuggets-style action, for those maybe not familiar with its charms, is a short and sweet impulse that encompassed a wide swath of sonic ideas; frat-rock party masters, sometimes with honking sax men (The Kingsmen, The Premiers, Swingin’ Medallions, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs), electric-Dylan knockoffs (Mouse & the Traps), Tex-Mex flavored guitar-organ combos (Sir Douglas Quintet), sly Buddy Holly revisionists (Bobby Fuller Four), those specializing in US-bred reactions to the early Brit Invasion (The Knickerbockers, The Shadows of Knight, The Barbarians, Nazz) and brief snatches of legit proto-punk action (The Music Machine, The Monks, The Sonics, Blue Cheer).
In terms of pure pleasure, it’s a simply fabulous movement with an inextinguishable sound that still provides inspiration for myriad musicians and listeners to this very day. And it’s this corner of the ‘60s that informs the sound of New York’s The Electric Mess. To call them a garage band is to invite potential confusion; one reason is due to contemporary garage becoming so identified with raucous lo-fi punk, a trend that really got rolling back when names like The Cheater Slicks, The Mummies, and The Gories began hybridizing these same Nuggets moves with such worthy later developments as the heavier side of Billy Childish, The Cramps at their wildest and the phenomenon of one-shot punk immortalized on the Killed By Death and Bloodstains bootleg LP volumes.
That’s not The Electric Mess’ scene at all, and if that disappoints one, well one will just have to be disappointed. No, these cats strongly recall the wave of garage revival aka retro-garage figures that flourished during the 1980s with names like The Cynics, The Fuzztones, The Miracle Workers, The Steppes, The Inn and The Brood. For the most part, these bands deliberately strove to sound like they’d wrangled through a wrinkle in time directly after playing a twenty-five minute gig on the back of a flatbed truck outside a McCrory’s five and dime.
It was surely a fun sound when done well, but by the end of the ‘80s it had suffered for its lack of seriousness. This was basically inevitable; a slew of these groups cut records, it was by design a scene not conducive to change (i.e. musical progress), and many of the groups extended their love of the music to a love of the era’s fashion (color tinted rectangular glasses, Beatle boots, cloaks, beads, paisley), making them highly dubious to many for diverting from the standard late ‘80s u-ground rock attire of jeans and a t-shirt.
The Electric Mess recall this wave but are not of it, for obviously it’s decades later and to my knowledge wrinkles in time don’t exist. And frankly the contempo landscape is almost totally lacking in bands that specialize in making such a bold statement in pure ‘60s garage adulation. Some hard-hearted cynics will carp that what’s on offer from The Electric Mess is comparable to the wares of a purist Dixieland jazz outfit in the era of John Coltrane. But this misses how there were actually some rather crucial purist Dixieland groups extant in the post-bop/free era; try out the early ‘60s albums of Sweet Emma Barrett for example.
Naysayers will retort that Barrett was actually part of the creation of her style and The Electric Mess is a group of relative youngsters co-opting a much older one. And I’ll reply that co-opting is a huge part of rock ‘n’ roll’s history. Plus, as some of the Nuggets’ O.G.s reach up on seventy years of age (or have already passed; Sky Saxon RIP), they are long past their prime for conveying such kicks.
And on that very topic, I’ve no doubt The Electric Mess go down a storm in the club setting, but on their new effort Falling Off the Face of the Earth, they stake their claim as a party band. Indeed, a fair amount of ink has already been spilled over the effectiveness of the group’s very pro show dynamic, but to my ears this bunch would sound fantastic playing three sets in a creaky three story house stuffed to the rafters with boisterous revelers while some lanky dude in a lawn chair takes it upon himself to guard the keg. Good job, sport.
If this sounds like I’m damning The Electric Mess with faint praise, don’t misunderstand. The best party bands are the ones too good for that status, the combos remembered decades later for making wild nights like the above stand out with sharp, sublime clarity. “I wonder what happened to them…” For numerous reasons, most never make it past the status of local heroes. However, a few…but hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a record, maybe Falling Off the Face of the Earth’s best quality is how it immediately demands the listener to take it or leave it. Opener “You Look Like a Psycho” possesses the sort of Mitch Ryder/Mark Lindsay-gleaned vocal chutzpah that either wins a convert or scores a detractor. But what might get missed is that the Mess’s blatantly 60’s derived clamor is delivered with an intensity that while inaccurately described as contempo is decidedly heavier, denser, and again more pro-like than the immortal sounds that so clearly stoke their fire.
Thankfully, this situation continues throughout the record and helps to elevate songwriting that’s stronger than that offered by the average garage schmoes, particularly on “The Girl With the Exploding Dress.” The toughness of their presentation also helps to keep the use of Farfisa organ, a necessary accoutrement that nonetheless makes for a dicey proposition in a garage state of affairs, register far away from the hackneyed; for instance, the keyboard in “Tell Me Why” blends The Music Machine, Manzarek, and a little bit of their own thing, right down to the fleetness of the solo.
On a purely musical level, The Electric Mess step into unpleasant territory hardly at all. They do however take that aforementioned vocal/lyrical quality over the top a few times too often, especially on “Nice Guys Finish Last.” It doesn’t ruin the record, but it does make Falling Off the Face of the Earth feel more like a “captured performance” at times than an album, and perhaps that was the point.
The Electric Mess mildly recall Girl Trouble, a fine garage themed band from Washington state that formed in the late-‘80s and straddled the Sub Pop, K, and Estrus indie empires (a group that I’m tickled to find still going strong). But where Girl Trouble always felt like a very cool lark, much of The Mess’s appeal comes from being a bolder, more polished entity. Typical New Yorkers, y’know?
In this sense I can’t help thinking of The Fleshtones, a no big deal sorta band that turned that glorious party-rock aesthetic detailed above into three-plus decades of laid-back (but never mellow) action. Those are definitely big shoes for The Electric Mess to fill (Peter Zaremba was a size twelve, at least), but if they can keep recording songs like “Elevator to Later” and album closer “I’ll Take You Anyway” they’ll get at least part of the way there.
Falling Off the Face of the Earth doesn’t rewrite any books and it won’t change many lives, but that’s clearly not the intention. And on some days this lack of ambition is quite enough.
Graded on a Curve: B