Superdrag: Head Trip in every key

You might remember Knoxville, Tennessee’s Superdrag from their ’96 hit “Sucked Out”, a jaunty bit of guitar pop that played well on MTV and pictured the band frolicking about in a coffee shop in spread collars, looking disaffected and generally apathetic, whilst lead singer and songwriter John Davis griped “Who sucked out the feeling?”

The band is back with their latest effort, Head Trip In Every Key, which finds them exploring new channels, even applying a few predictable studio flourishes (strings, sitar, etc.) indicative of a band capitalizing on their newfound wealth and success attempting to branch out. This they achieve with mostly good results. Superdrag specialize in a genre of music known by the somewhat banal tag of “melodic alt-rock”, a style practiced by the likes of Matthew Sweet and Weezer, characterized by choppy power chords, thick grooves, and singers who make an earnest attempt at melody.

Head Trip is not a particularly great album, which is not to say that it’s particularly bad, or even mediocre. It finds the band tilling the fertile fields of sixties pop-rock, updated with some ’90s touches like louder guitars and new-age suburban Weltschmerz. The first single, “Do The Vampire”, is a little gem that chugs along effortlessly, guitars churning, even finding time for a little bass solo with some echoed guitar draped over it. Quite a nice touch. “Amphetemine” and “Wrong vs. Right Doesn’t Matter” Davis croons with Elvis Costello-like earnestness over a tightly wound rawk base.

He even adds a slightly eastern raga feel to the melody of “Bankrupt Vibration”, another standout track. Davis’ attention to songcraft has really paid off quite well. The melodies are well-crafted, the lyrics are at times quite witty, even if they only really serve as window dressing for the snappy little numbers, to which most of the attention has been paid. As guitar pop goes, this is interestingly good, and quite consistent. Take a listen.

For something completely different, there’s Manchester, England’s own Black Grape, out and about with the latest blend of electro-drug-funk entitled, somewhat aptly, Stupid Stupid Stupid. This is music that could only come out of that steamy musical melting pot that is the English scene; a blend of spacey keyboards, digital bleeps a la Daft Punk, and electro-squawk, layered ever so tastefully over groovy funk rhythms and some phat-bass; kind of like a cross between James Brown and Moby. Uh, right. Lead singer and songwriter Shaun Ryder (previously of the late ’80s trip-rockers Happy Mondays) has a growl that sounds like someone who’s just woken up after smoking a brush fire. To say he “sings” wouldn’t do justice to the term singing, although he provides the means by which the band’s slightly warped drug rants are delivered, all in a sneering Manc whine, a la Liam Gallagher. “Get Higher,” the album’s opening track, has interludes glorifying drug use delivered somewhat comically by Ron and Nancy Reagan sound-alikes. Making fun of the Gipper is, of course, not a very fresh idea, but it still makes a rather bland song somewhat amusing. If you’ve heard Black Grape’s first album, the immensely enjoyable It’s Great When You’re Straight, Yeah!, then you’ll know what the band’s truly capable of. Good time UK dance party grooves and witty sarcasm pepper their first release, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find much of the same on Stupid. There’s really only one groove that the band seems capable of playing, which they vary slightly from song to song. “Squeaky” and “Marbles” stand out as particularly good, as does “Spotlight”, the album’s strongest track. Others just fail miserably, like “Rubber Band”, where Ryder’s groan gets lost amidst a mess of guitar distortion. However, for all of their juvenile drug-induced messiness and dopey banter, Black Grape still remains a particularly fun band. At their best, their electro-funk sounds fresh and exciting, a unique take on a style grown impossibly stale since its heyday in the ’70s. But at worst, well, watch out.

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