Graded on a Curve:
Redd Kross,
Researching the Blues

Redd Kross lasted much longer than the average punk band of their vintage, mainly because they avoided the typical didacticism that came to plague the mid-‘80s punk scene. After a 15-year break in recording, they are back with Researching the Blues, their sixth LP and first for Merge Records. If it doesn’t reach the heights of 1982’s Born Innocent, it is their best release since ‘87’s Neurotica.

It would be difficult to find a band that’s tenure has produced such differing results and reactions as Redd Kross. The brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald are the two constant members of the band, easily one of the half-dozen finest California groups of the hardcore-era, though their music was always too melodic to be accurately described as hardcore in style. And they were also one of the few Golden State acts to make it past 1983 without the well of inspiration running dry.

Redd Kross have made a career out of being serious about being unserious. This tactic has served them extremely well, particularly early on. But by the dawn of the ‘90s they’d taken their mixture of melodic punk, power pop, glam, and trash culture to such an extreme that if the interested parties were polled as to whether Redd Kross should call it quits or continue exploring their unapologetic and over the top ways, its voting would’ve been quite heated and very close.

To these ears, Redd Kross have one era that’s indisputably classic and absolutely essential, and that’s their earliest material. The debut six-song self-titled EP from 1981 and the Born Innocent LP from 1982, both initially released under the name Red Cross (a lawsuit from the International Red Cross instigated the adjustment in moniker), are pretty much required listening for anyone interested in getting a solid grasp on the diversity of US underground punk of the early ‘80s.

The amount of growth that transpired between the Posh Boy-released EP and the Smoke 7 (and later Frontier) issued Born Innocent remains impressive to this day, especially when considering that it captured the essence of a legitimate teen band. At the point of formation Jeff and Steve were fifteen and eleven years of age, and while the verve of youth will eternally drip from the efforts that make up the McDonald brothers’ initial phase, the music also possessed an undeniably high level of rock acumen.

It was surely true for others before them, but Red Cross and Born Innocent really exemplified the musical expression of those for who rock music and its satellite concerns were an utter inevitability. To elaborate, Steve McDonald was born in the year of Sgt. Pepper and earned the right to vote the year Meat is Murder, Fables of the Reconstruction and Psychocandy were released.

In 1984 the brothers whittled the band down to a trio with drummer Dave Peterson and recorded the metallic-tinged covers EP Teen Babes from Monsanto. If this concept seems a tad bit underachieving for a band of this stature, it should be considered instead as a trim and clean break from any confusion over punk orthodoxy. Not that the Kross were all that conventional to begin with; it’s just that time and musical proficiency shaved the edges of uniqueness off far too many an interesting punk band. Covers of Kiss, Shangri-Las, Bowie, and Boyce & Hart took care of any lingering misapprehension over future intent with due quickness.

Teen Babes from Monsanto is a nice little record, but behind Born Innocent the best Red Kross LP is Neurotica. Stylistically broad without losing focus, flaunting big strides in pop-angled songwriting and possessing maturity without losing anything in youthful gusto, it’s a record that should’ve been a much bigger deal when released. But Big Time, the band’s fourth label across the span of four releases, folded up shop shortly after its issue and Neurotica proved a very difficult LP to find for years afterward.

Red Kross opened the ‘90s with Third Eye, beginning what for many is their least productive phase in terms of quality. In retrospect, none of the band’s records from that decade are awful; I actually enjoy ‘97’s Show World the best out of a trio completed by ‘93’s Phaseshifter. But the problem was one of emphasis; where the band had always been a proponent of low-culture junk as gold, by Third Eye they had embraced it so heavily that it took on the feeling of shtick and they often came across as a novelty band (a similar problem with their side project Tater Totz). Compounding the issue was their stage manner, featuring behavior that could at times crawl toward unadulterated antics.

Seeing them open for Sonic Youth on the Goo tour was case in point. The crowd in University of Maryland’s Cole Field House was divided so sharply that the whole spectacle could in retrospect seem like their most “punk” move up to that point. It’s certainly possible to imagine Thurston Moore deviously stoking his lack of chin whiskers on the side of the stage as Redd Kross did their thing. But punk moves need a strong musical backbone to really succeed, and that requirement still sounds misplaced in the group’s desire to buddy up to David Cassidy.

Redd Kross have been rumbling around for the last five years or so in a live context however, playing a night of Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah celebration back in 2007 and also opening for those aforementioned pals Sonic Youth, playing Born Innocent in its entirety before the Youth did the same with Daydream Nation. This was quite the interesting idea, showcasing two releases coming from opposite ends of the same essential movement.

As detailed above, Born Innocent is a great example of early-‘80s punk’s unbridled creativity, the album going on to influence countless bands throughout the decade. And Daydream Nation is in many ways the (perhaps too obvious) culmination of the punk underground’s development and viral spread into what’s now known as indie rock.

Many will never divert from considering Red Kross as a mere footnote that managed to endure in large part due to simply having the right connections. Those that feel this way will probably rate Researching the Blues as little more than a pleasantry at best and a space-filler at worst. Conversely, those that love one some or all of the group’s incarnations will likely hear it as a long overdue return to form.

In reality, it’s something else. This new Redd Kross record is simply another entry from Jeff and Steven Shane McDonald, two guys for whom playing rock ‘n’ roll is as natural and nearly as essential as breathing, reuniting the Neurotica lineup with guitarist Robert Hecker and drummer Roy McDonald (no relation). If this incarnation of the band’s return to activity is notable and laudable, it is also no big deal, especially in light of how they get right down to business.

Researching the Blues’ first three tracks set a near impossible standard to maintain, throwing down lean, dynamic pop-inflected punk that should give all but the most jaded fans of the Dangerhouse and Bomp rosters a shiver of deep appreciation, a reaction that could easily spread to a head bob, then a fist pump and finally an impassioned shout-along, the chorus of “Stay Away From Downtown” being perfectly geared toward near instantaneous singing in fervent, life-affirming accompaniment.

Beginning with “Dracula’s Daughters” the raucousness settles down considerably, mainly because the script gets flipped to include a batch of power-popish ditties that are judiciously sprinkled with punk seasoning. Upon time spent, maybe too judiciously sprinkled. But thankfully the record takes an upswing as it nears the end of its compact ten-song duration; “Choose to Play” and “Winter Blues” both sound strong, and “Hazel Eyes” provides a very fine closer.

After it all plays out, Researching the Blues falls to the positive side of the punk/indie reunion phenomenon. It appears that Steve’s work backing Keith Morris in OFF! has paid some additional dividends. For some, this LP will erase the foul aftertaste of their ‘90s work, producing a flavor much more in line with the mid-‘80s period. And those that do enjoy their later material will still likely view this return not as a regression but instead as a necessary back to basics maneuver.

Still others will be given an introduction to this very important and worthwhile band through Researching the Blues. It’s a record by a bunch of true scene vets, but it still comes off as younger than the work of some bands half their age. And if its valley-like progression of song quality means the LP misses the mark of classic, it still exceeds any reasonable expectations. The jury is still out regarding how long Red Kross can manage to continue this state of affairs, but at this point it’s nice to have them back.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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