Drag Me LP
(Let’s Pretend Records)
While fans already had a pretty good idea where Jon Spencer would end up following the dissolution of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in 2016 (other than making appearances in the multitude of projects to which the guitarist had offered both his name and talent over the years, he also has a newly minted solo career to develop), the question of where drummer Russell Simins may appear next was a very open one. Granted, Simins was not unknown outside of the Blues Explosion already – production and performance credits include work with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Cibo Matto, Ween, Tom Waits, Tiny Masters of Today and many more – but it’s not always easy to see who’s sitting behind the drum kit when there are a bunch of big personalities standing on stage in front of them. Even with that said however, with S-E-R-V-I-C-E, Simins has found a way to reconcile making his presence felt: with wife Jilly Weiss-Simins on the mic and a cast of players including including guitarist Mitch Geisinger, bassist John Zeps and keyboardist Sharlene Birdsong to his left and right, S-E-R-V-I-C-E feels like a completely fresh effort which bears none of the marks of any of Simins’ previous work other than the instantly recognizable sound of his drum kit.
That sound – the sound of a huge assault on a small kit – appears unmistakably after an ominous buzz opens “It’s You.” There, Simins keeps his introduction simple as the song stomps in and he allows the rest of the band to exert their presence in the mix methodically before Jilly Weiss-Simins moans darkly on top in a performance which resembles equal parts Patti Smith and Donita Sparks. In print, the sound that S-E-R-V-I-C-E makes at first might not seem impressive but, in practice, it will definitely make listeners take notice; words like “monumental” and “elemental” don’t exactly fit the experience, but there’s definitely something “mental” about it, without a doubt.
After “It’s You” roars to a close, “Hey” instantly makes a far more intoxicating impression as the drums spontaneously begin moving faster, and with greater malice. The rest of the band follows suit too; the combination of Zeps’ pulsing bass and Simins’ trebly drums is genuinely jarring at first, but slides into a serpentine rhythm soon after and, when Weiss-Simins’ vocals enter the mix, listeners will find themselves completely charmed. While lines like, “We fell oh so fast/ Can’t believe we ended up like that/ Now can I walk?/ In an age of, “Look at me,”/ I was a no show” tighten a grip around listeners’ collective imagination, S-E-R-V-I-C-E also summarily dismisses fashionable appeal and calls for genuine appreciation. Weiss-Simins’ vocal pulls on listeners’ heartstrings while also spitting in their eye. That structure shifts slightly as “Who Are You Anyway” spontaneously (and unexpectedly) emerges as a low-fi punk rock anthem before “Blooded” falls into the kind of slippery, bottom-heavy skulker that any fan of Nirvana’s Incesticide will be both surprised and hypnotized by, and then “Two Gurus In Drag” just chugs along like the great song which could have fallen off of L7’s Bricks Are Heavy to close the side. Right until the end, Weiss-Simins doesn’t so much stomp like Donita Sparks so much as swagger and swing in a manner which is undeniably anti-social, but is also unquestionably sultry. The results are dark in tone but, no matter how dark it gets, the band deftly keeps their hooks set deep into listeners, even after the needle lifts. They’ll want more, and will find themselves flipping the record over both quickly and expectantly.
While “Pusher” doesn’t exactly hand listeners an easy hit to open the flip-side of Drag Me (again, the production sounds papery, Weiss-Simins whimpers and squeals on the mic in a really frustrating way and the song just tries too many ideas at once), “Won’t Stop Coming” somehow manages to find its way into a strange incarnation of twenty-first century New Wave which proves to be really satisfying and is a great foil for the contextually startling hard rock howl of “Find Me Alive”. That would be enough to completely blow the minds of those listening, but the Satanic sock-hop soundtrack which is embodied by the squealing vocals and dextrous drumming of “June and Johnny” adds a completely different, higher energy to the running before some wistful synths and an almost romantic chord-and-melody progression in the title track pull the curtains closed on both the side and the album. For as many rough and tumble turns as Drag Me makes, the serenity with which it ends proves to be the master’s touch which will have listeners ready to run the album’s course again, as soon as the needle lifts.
Even with that glowing praise and sensation in hand, it does need to be said that Drag Me doesn’t leave a clear impression of where S-E-R-V-I-C-E might be headed on future releases. Perhaps that’s the point though; by covering so much ground on their debut, S-E-R-V-I-C-E has the luxury of doing anything they want on their follow-up when they make one, and it could all fit together seamlessly. In that regard, the design and direction of this album is great because it is only the band’s first – it brims with a promise that will have listeners ready for more, right away. [Bill Adams]
The Drag Me LP is out now. Buy it here, directly from Let’s Pretend Records.