The Von Bondies - Love, Hate and Then There's You Review

Sometimes getting dumped is just what you need. Not necessarily in terms of a romantic relationship, but more specifically, being dropped from a label. Almost always the result of dwindling sales/interest or album procrastination, the release of the Von Bondies from Warner's roster signaled a potential band collapse. As of now, it's been nearly five years since their last full-length and even longer since that famous Jack White/Jason Stollsteimer scrap. So there was more than enough time for Stollsteimer and his mates to collect their thoughts and put an “A” effort into their third disc. Unfortunately, in that same time span, what's been the vogue has changed rather jarringly, and the garage power pop revival is no longer in full swing. But no matter: 2004's Pawn Shoppe Heart was a closer cousin to the Cult and a constrained Gun Club than the Strokes and White Stripes. And even though what's “in” matters nothing for a record's quality, nor does a stylistic retreat signal an absence of ideas or confidence, Love, Hate and Then There's You doesn't suggest that getting the axe from the big leagues is inspiring a more unique and dangerous voice.

I doubt I'm going out on a limb by suggesting that co-producer Butch Walker was as much in charge with the band's new sound as anyone else. The temptation to recruit a man responsible for keeping unimpressive acts like Simple Plan, Fall Out Boy and Avril Lavigne on the radio must have been tough to resist. After all, we all know what it's like after getting dumped. Wouldn't the best revenge be for you to become bigger after the split than you ever in your ex's company? But a quick glance at Walker's résumé let's you know what sacrifices you're going to have to make. Actually, the more you think about it, it's quite a miracle they ended up with a halfway decent album at all.

And make no mistake about it—Walker's fingerprints are all over this one. But just because it shines like something fresh off a manufacturing press doesn't necessarily mean that it should be tossed right into the garbage bin. It begins pretty well with a hollow drum echo and a standard nu-wave angular guitar jive, leading to the flag-waving chorus of “This Is Our Perfect Crime.” But it offers absolutely no surprises, from the automated lockstep click between verse and refrain, the entirely-too-clean and predictable bridge and the anthemic cry, “We are the spark/We are the grit...We are the underground.” Even as I figuratively opened up my chest and saw their fingers playing my keys for all they were worth, the urge to cheerfully sing along wormed its way up to my throat. If the lyrics hadn't been so boring, I might have even willingly succumbed.

Glowering and yowling his way through most of these tunes, Stollsteimer doesn't seem to be listening to how the rest of Von Bondies are playing. “21st Birthday” sounds like a Cheap Trick knock-off with equal parts fizz and fuzz, but ol' Jason is too preoccupied sneering into the mic and declaring, “Never gonna live to see your 21st birthday/Never gonna have to see her pretty face again.” “Chancer” has one of more interesting musical arsenals on the album, featuring complicated and speedy skin pounding from drummer Don Blum, but the words couldn't be more generic if it was written by Diane freakin' Warren. Bassist Leann Banks joins in the fun by half-heartedly shouting, “Hey now, hey now, take it to the other side”; Stollsteimer answers with, “You don't look so cool but you look so alive.” Based on the lyrics, I wonder if Jack White's fists did more than just surface damage to the Bondies' frontman. Even when the music becomes urgent in performance, they just sound like a lot of other bands charging through similar material. The quick rocker “She's Dead to Me” leaps out of the gate with undisciplined swagger (before wheezing through the next minute), but the Nirvana riff intro is far too familiar to overlook—QotSA's “3s & 7s” suffered a similar crisis.

Even their sinister side has been declawed. On “Shut Your Mouth,” Stollsteimer begins both verses with, “Go to sleep little baby and shut your mouth,” and proceeds to blow a kiss-off to his critics. Draping the next track, “Pale Bride,” in dark notes of mystery doesn't help sell the bland leadoff verse, “Here she comes/My pale bride/Makes it so that I don't try anymore/All dressed in white/Sad to see that I don't care anymore,” especially when the vocals leap an octave on the repetitive but melodic chorus. It's not just the pen that's reduced to bland formula; even the singing rings with less big gig gusto and more tired rehearsal.

A punchy rhythm helps “Accidents Will Happen” stand out among all of the toothless riffs on the second half, but by that point the energy has severely waned—even at less than thirty-six minutes, the album can become a chore, especially on the second and third go around. Positioned at the end is an unexpected breather from all of the pristinely cluttered pop-punk arrangements. It is “Modern Saints,” which opens with drum echoes and chiming synths. But by then, you know that the band's being played like a harp by the producers, so it's no surprise at all to see the track grow into a huge arena stomper. I should have lost interest by the time Stollsteimer passionately belted out his bridge to nowhere, but since it was a change of pace, I wondered if it was simply too much of a good thing that hampered all of the big stadium rock records from last year. A few replays negated that theory.

The only real surprise in store for the Von Bondies' audience comes from how carefully plotted and routine the album is. Despite their label blues, this effort sounds like the sort of LP that the majors would love to print a quarter million of with hardly a blink. The once feverish, violent and ultimately cathartic musical attack has been toned back to allow for more glitter than grit. Not a problem if they continue to rip through the rhythm section and crank out some sharp lines and honest pleas, but they trade that in for lamentations and posturing. Playing loud and fast doesn't compensate for plastered shape and rigid control. Some of the songs are even kinda catchy but rarely memorable; where's the juice? For the Von Bondies, sing-along choruses and hyperactive hooks shouldn't be the chief concern. They should spend more time trying to figure out how to sell what they're doing as the real deal. I guess I'm too cautious a consumer.

"Love, Hate and Then There's You" is on sale February 3, 2009 from Majordomo.

Matt Medlock


New Reviews