Album review: Redd Kross – Researching The Blues (Merge)

RK photo by Jon Krop

This summer, a band consisting of brothers, and one formed in the L.A. area in the ‘70s, has been cashing in on the reunion circuit. That band is not Redd Kross. As Van Halen rose to fame with increasingly technical songs, centering on topics that occasionally bordered on juvenile, brothers Steven and Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross were simply being juvenile.

With the risk of over-romanticizing the past, it’s enough to simply state that the Los Angeles of Redd Kross was far removed from the one of celebrity excess plaguing the Sunset Strip. While bratty behavior may be a staple of most, if not all, youthful rock n’ roll scenes, Redd Kross aligned itself with the early days of L.A. punk, where self-deprecation and cynicism took precedence over lusting and soloing. Long before Van Halen declared itself “Hot for Teacher,” Redd Kross was too bored with the whole ritual to even notice. “I hate my school,” Jeff shouted his voice hoarse in 1980, before he was old enough to vote.

More than three decades later, on Redd Kross’ first album in 15 years, the cynicism is trained on more adult concerns. Call it age-appropriate disenchantment. “You’re getting uglier, I’m getting uglier, we’re getting uglier,” Jeff sings on “Uglier,” turning an aging not-so-gracefully mantra into a full-band sing-along, one complete with backing vocal woo-woos. Heck, “Stay Away From Downtown” is all old-man crankiness, with Jeff warning up top, “Remember, your life was once good.” This isn’t a band living in the past; instead, it’s one haunted by it.

In fact, bitterness seems to be inversely related to a song’s cheeriness. “One of the Good Ones” beckons with a shuffling beat and skip-to-work handclaps, all while the band expresses shock—shock!—that someone in its hometown doesn’t have an ulterior motive. Later, sunny weather is little more than a pesky light that shines on Jeff’s face in “Winter Blues,” a snappy global-warming lament with brightly textured guitar work that echoes ‘70s-era George Harrison.

It all feels rather natural. As Redd Kross bounced around labels throughout the 80s and 90s, the band’s sound gradually smoothed out, progressing from scrappy, how-fast-can-you-go snottiness to irresistibly melodic power-pop. Researching the Blues, surprisingly, falls somewhere in the middle, presenting a late-career Redd Kross that knows the importance of brevity—no song breaches the four-minute barrier—as well as the joy of a swooning, Beach Boys-inspired multi-part harmony (“Dracula’s Daughter”).

And, it’s not all that far removed, in fact, from more recent singles from Superchunk, the tightly focused pop-punk band behind Redd Kross’ current label, Merge Records. Researching the Blues also makes the case that Redd Kross accomplished one of the rarest of rock n’ roll feats: growing up. —Todd Martens

Click here to order from Merge records on LP, CD or FLAC download.

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