As Charlie Brown might say, good grief! So many reviewers for so many publications NOT based in L.A. have slammed the Warlocks time after time, treating them like pompous golden idols who needed to be melted with cruel words into the fire of TRUTH, the truth being that no one who dresses like the Velvet Underground that much can possibly be authentic. Even in the Warlocks’ golden age in, say, 2002, half their reviews were praise pieces, and the other half were “shit sandwich.” And when the band took an experimental misstep with 2005’s Surgery, critics forked them with epithets such as “monochromatic,” “the Snorelocks,” and even “un-magical ass clowns.” The Warlocks have been panned for both self-similarity and for trying different sounds, for taking drugs and not taking drugs, for their chaos and careerism. At this point in their career, if they made a fantastic album, would anyone stop coming up with memes long enough to notice?
Of course, the Warlocks have certainly encouraged meme queens with their own awkward attempts at self-branding. For their last album, they attempted to go “evil,” calling their album Heavy Deavy Skull Lover, putting a Kenneth Anger-esque red-tinted naked gypsy on the cover, and even releasing their album on Halloween. It didn’t work—the album was more dull than dark, much of its echoey guitar picking sounding like the incidental music from Twin Peaks.
But the past is the past, and like with Batman movies, you’ll enjoy the franchise a whole lot more if you employ some selective memory loss. If Surgery was the Warlocks’ End of the Century, and the last album was their Subterranean Jungle, then their new album The Mirror Explodes is at least Animal Boy, if not an out-and-out Brain Drain. It’s as if the last two albums never happened, yet all the best bits from that bizarro world got crystallized into good things. The Mirror Explodes has the concise, no-time-for-bullshit manner of Surgery, with all the shoe-gazey stuff Heavy Deavy Skull Lover was accused of, and yet says more and evokes more, all the while somehow being more true to the best parts of what has made the classic Warlocks a cut above their black-clad brethren.
By the way, if you’re listening for all this in the track that L.A. RECORD has been permitted to provide above, just stop—that’s the shittiest song on the album. Let’s start with track three: “Slowly Disappearing.” Predictably there’s a helluva lot of Spaceman 3 on this track, but so too is there some Sonic Youth-iness, the first direct influence I’ve ever seen from that band upon this band. And it works. I can’t make out who’s singing this song, but he/she’s doing one hell of a Kim Gordon imitation, straight off one of the moody songs on Goo. It’s Youth-y but toothy and droney in a way Thurston’s gang never really captured. In fact, this song’s shakers and booming drums and vision-invoking repetition make the new lineup of the Warlocks sound more than a bit like Indian Jewelry! Perhaps here is the tribalism that membership on Tee Pee Records promised.
Even the band’s lyrics, never their strong suit, seem very much improved from the recent past. For all the posturing they’ve been accused of, classic Warlocks songs like “Shake the Dope Out” really did ring true to anyone who’s taken downers to undilate their eyes before work—and “There Is a Formula to Your Despair” off this record feels just as human, perhaps more so, because it’s clearly a post-drug song as pitiful as a Woody Allen caricature. There’s a pace and progression similar to Matt Hollywood-era Brian Jonestown Massacre, but with better little feedback noises and drum build-ups that evoke Maureen Tucker, and a lysergic tremolo set to the square-wave pattern on somebody’s effect pedal. If you have friends as annoyingly self-pitying as mine, you will immediately relate to this song, even as you’re weirded out by the prospect of getting hooked every time Bobby Hecksher talks to you like a friend.
It’s like this band found a whole new side of the kraut-glam-Floyd-Velvets era to appreciate. “Standing Between the Lovers of Hell” starts where a normal Velvets songs ends, screechy and sanguine, with a Tucker “thump-thump” so primitive, it’s almost in 1:1 time, until halfway through the song when it jumps to the standard 4:4, and then phases into a Stooges wah-wah thing. This almost could have become “We Will Fall” if they’d gotten John Cale to play viola over it. And those vocals! I think it’s Bobby, but it sounds like if Tom Waits and Robert Smith gave birth to a singer with a penchant for helium.
I could go on and on. From the Public Image Ltd. guitars on “Frequency Meltdown” to the warped Joy Division keys on “Static Eyes” to the millions of sounds throughout the album that just cannot be identified, there’s so much to learn on each relistening. Hecksher and the gang have succeeded at making a record that’s both true to form and different, one that definitely tears the “monochromatic” tag to shreds. Oddly enough, as I was in the throes of composing this review, I ran into Bobby at a party, and he told me that he considered this album a capstone to allow the band to go in a completely new musical direction. If so, then The Mirror Explodes is an easy-to-enjoy adieu to a sound that has always been deeper than the affectations of hip. Adios, amigos!