Monday, May 31, 2004
Title: Chariot!

From: Jersey City. This record was built at Grisly Labs, a fantastic recording studio on Fifth Street off of Brunswick Avenue, right around the corner from Madame Claude's. You'd hardly know it was there -- it's extremely spacious, but it's located in an unassuming blue aluminum-sided building that I'm sure passing pedestrians mistake for a garage. Really, it's more like the BatCave: when you enter, the immensity of the complex doesn't seem to corroborate at all with the exterior. You feel like you're stepping into an extradimensional space.

Format: Fourteen song album. Only the distorted "Cruise Missile" breaks the four-minute mark. It's a very manageable listening experience, clocking in at a little over forty minutes. Old cassette-dubbers will know what I mean when I say it'd fit comfortably on one side of a 90. You could put both Giraffes records on the other side, open a bottle of Jack Daniels, and have yourself a freakout.

Fidelity: Very good, if unconventional. Chariot! is not trying to make a record that sounds like modern rock radio. They're trying to make a record that sounds like classic rock heard through the speakers of a station wagon in 1973. Since they have the best recording technology in town at their disposal, they succeed.

Genre: Classic-rock revival, garage-rock, Southern rock. Chariot! can boogie like Molly Hatchet. Since that's rarely attempted in the Yankee haven we call Hudson County, they're a pretty anomalous area act.

Arrangements: Twin guitars, bass, drums, acoutrements. To get that authentic gutbucket sound, the Beast spends most of his time on baritone guitar. It's a good choice: the barry doesn't sound all that dissimilar from a toughened-up Telecaster, but it forces the harmonic center of these tracks lower than they'd otherwise be. When venturing into Allmans territory, getting that deep-swamp growl is half the fight. The lead guitar is almost always an overdriven, thick zipper of sound. For a group so committed to punishing rock, there is more organ and synthesizer here than you'd guess there'd be. Huge organ stabs drive "Coke Bottle Girl", and a queasy ribbon of Korg runs through the heart of "Diamond All The Way" (the closest thing here to an acoustic number). The shouted backing vocals never fail to come in the appropriate places, and there's even a little cowbell at the beginning of the title track. Chariot! makes sure to dot the I's and cross the T's.

What's this record about?: Booze, girls, getting booze to get girls, automobiles and trucks, rock and roll cities, horror movie monsters, blowing your thumb off with your own weapon. Chariot! operates with a kind of puerile wit that keeps a cretin like me smiling throughout. This is the sort of writing that is called "willfully stupid" by those who don't realize they're impugning the entire rock and roll tradition. Chariot! can get stuck in reiterative choruses, but when they allow themselves a little narrative flexibility, they're almost always amusing within the tight parameters they've set for themselves. If the message to most of this music boils down to a Seventies-chill "get stoned, crack jokes, and relax as the car swerves out of control", I'm really not complaining about the "Casey Jones" logic: they embody the vibe so well that it becomes as persuasive as it was on Workingman's Dead.

The singer: D-Lux is the principal voice here; it's bemused, caustic, obnoxious, sometimes hilarious. He never exactly sings; he chats, wheedles, decaims and screams his way through the songs, and occasionally verges on total meltdown. At times, it feels like he's challenging the listener to take him seriously -- but just when you're sure he's putting you on, he'll rip into a line-reading that's both immediate and heartfelt. The Grisly Labs producers make sure to filter his vocals through demented distortion, echo, and reverb effects; on "Cruise Missile", it sounds like he's singing through an intercom on a Russian submarine. At times, the result can be incomprehensible, yet they make sure we don't miss any crucial information. The exception is the otherwise bracing (and appropriately-named) "James Gang Bang", which I can't make heads or tails of. It's a series of staccato grunts that might best approximate human language if by "language" we mean early caveman hunting exclamations. Feral for sure, but still: I can't tell you it doesn't work.

The band: Chariot! regularly gets a good, drunken groove going, and while these guys can certainly play, they're never so tight that they dishonor their ramshackle sources or suffocate the essential friendliness out of their songs. "Detroit" is probably the most ferocious thing here, but even on that stomper, they do their best to avoid oppressive guitar midrange. Beast and Buzz, the band's twin guitarists, can get sludge-happy, but they keep it to limited doses: Chariot! is digestible by heavy-rock standards because they're so scrupulous about varying tones. Bassist Maestro gets lost in the mix sometimes, but he's so loose and laid-back -- even when playing ferociously -- that it's his heartbeat that keeps Chariot! so amicable. And Q, the drummer, has a great right hand on the ride cymbal. He slams it hard and lets it ring like Birmingham steel, just like they used to do in the Alabama roadhouses. At least I think they did.

The songs: The album opens with a spirited cover of Link Wray's "Rumble"; later, the group offers a punishing rendition of "Shapes Of Things" by the Yardbirds. "Coke Bottle Girl" includes a quote from "California Girls", and at least two other songs sound like they could morph into "Smoke On The Water" at any point. Chariot! isn't too concerned about original songcraft. Most of the songs here are based around familiar-sounding blues riffs. Yet it's notable that when the group stretches out a little, they prove they've got the ability to craft hooks. "Diamond All The Way" and "All Nite In The Life" start out derivative, but explore avenues away from the main thoroughfare. And "Celtic Sharpie" builds from a throbbing synthesizer and a whipping-post riff to a surprisingly Floydish release. Finally, you could have hung out at Wetlands for months without hearing fake-Dead as convincing as "Henry's Ex", the closer.

What differentiates this record from others like it? Chariot! has a better sense of humor than the Brought Low, and are probably a bit more approachable because they pick their spots to get ferocious. They're much more willing to experiment with recording hijinx than the guys in Bad Wizard are: they're more playful, more elastic. And yes, I'm comparing Chariot! to New York bands. There isn't so much of this stuff in Jersey -- since about a third of our state is actually below the Mason-Dixon line, I think we tend to be more self-conscious in our approximation of Southern-rock. We're either intimidated or overly reverent. Chariot! are neither.

What's not so good?: I have to draw the line somewhere, and for me, it's "Dracula's Baby". I find the metaphor facile (even by mook-rock standards), the faux-horror music choppy, and I'm completely unconvinced by D-Lux's perfomance. Where he's usually effective, here he sounds overly parodic, and maybe even a little whiny.

Recommended?: This is an immensely enjoyable rock record that I've given spin after spin. They don't take themselves too seriously, and they don't ask you to, either. But since Chariot! is so stylized, it's worth asking whether it's exploiting its target: are these guys making fun of boogie bands, or are they a boogie band themselves? I don't really think it matters one way or the other, but I think whatever their original intentions were, they're worth taking seriously as formalists. Loose, cheeky, playful formalists, sure, but authentic revivalists nonetheless.

Where can I get a copy/hear more?: Chariot! is available through Useless Records. The website features a great video for "Detroit", complete with car chases, dancing girls, and old autos doing impossible low-rider tricks.

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