For many musicians, covering other artists’ material comes at a peril. There is the risk of exposing one’s own weaknesses as a songwriter, or dragging a well-known tune so far from its stylistic roots that the results yield an amusing but short-lived novelty. (Personally, I’d just as soon listen to the Gourds play originals, but I’d wager the majority of casual fans know them for their hard-driving bluegrass interpretations of David Bowie and Snoop Dogg ditties.) But Detroit garage rockers The Dirtbombs have sidestepped these pitfalls for years. In addition to their killer 2001 full-length Ultraglide In Black, comprised primarily of vintage R&B and soul tunes, their teeming catalog includes covers of everyone from Yoko Ono and Soft Cell to Flipper and Elliott Smith.
It’s a testament to the abilities of Mick Collins and his cohorts that, even with that impressive track record, the concept behind The Dirtbombs’ new Party Store (available on CD and triple-LP February 1, out now digitally) still seems ambitious and daring: A disc full of seminal Detroit techno tracks reinvented. Just a peek at the track list hints at the seriousness with which the band approached the project. The nine selections not only touch on all three of the founding fathers of Motor City techno (Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May), but also their immediate disciples (Carl Craig), and oddball Eurodisco sides that influenced these pioneers (“A Number of Names” by Sharevari). The project even stretches into the realms of contemporary Detroit booty bass, with a quick cover of DJ Assault‘s “Tear The Club Up.”
As they charge through their succinct survey of the history of electronic music in Detroit, The Dirtbombs’ versions of these songs consistently do what one hopes good covers will, illuminating unusual aspects of the source material, while also highlighting the unique abilities of the interpreters. “Strings of Life” and “Jaguar” maintain the minimalism of the electronic originals, yet hearing them rendered in wholly new voices -- fuzzy, febrile guitars where once were primitive synthesizers -- brings out other facets of the melodies and rhythms. What keyboards and drum machines are audible definitely a play a supporting role, reminiscent of Sly Stone’s early use of rhythm boxes. Even Collins’ vocals impart alternate perspectives. There’s a libidinous quality to his reading of “Sharevari” that underscores the elitist consumerism celebrated in the lyric, while the deadpan delivery of the supposedly uplifting sentiments of “Good Life” seems to hint at a reality that is just as true now as it was when Saunderson’s Inner City took the tune up the UK charts in 1988: After the dancing is done and the lights come up, it’s grim out there.
At the album’s centerpiece is arguable the most audacious thing The Dirtbombs have ever attempted, a 21-minute reworking of the 1992 tune “Bug in the Bassbin,” originally a jazz-inflected odyssey credited to one of Carl Craig’s numerous aliases, Innerzone Orchestra. Here it opens with weird burbles and hisses, mechanical sounds that point back towards Detroit’s pivotal role in the automotive industry, then kicks in with tightly repeated, martial drum figures and increasingly out-there guitar lines. It might not be the most accessible tune inThe Dirtbombs’ catalog (although a tight remix by Holy Ghost! or another member of the DFA crew could change that), but it is never boring and will undoubtedly yield an excellent academic dissertation or editorial in The Wire about this recording’s unique place in the African American musical diaspora (there’s a lot of Jimi Hendrix in some of the trippy guitar work).
Derrick May once famously described Detroit techno as the sound of “George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator.” If the Stooges had gotten on at another floor, the results would’ve sounded pretty damn close to Party Store.
DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His weekly rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter and/or Tumblr!