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Disposable Zeroes

 

The Dandy Warhols: Welcome to the Monkey House

Capitol, 2003

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: September 15, 2003

By Laurence Station

It can't be just a coincidence that Portland, Oregon-based pop-trash purveyors The Dandy Warhols have titled their fourth album Welcome to the Monkey House, can it? Because the album does fit in rather nicely with Kurt Vonnegut's opinion regarding his 1968 short-story collection of the same name. (Essentially, the stories were written and sold to finance his novels; the author saw them as irrelevant, disposable, a commodity that fueled a higher artistic purpose.) Like that book, Monkey House, the album, is patently disposable. The difference, of course, is that the Warhols revel in our modern-day disposable culture. Monkey House's unzipped-banana cover even pays homage to the band's namesake, pop-art icon Andy Warhol, whose two most famous album covers -- The Velvet Underground's debut and the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers -- are slyly referenced.

The Warhols certainly aren't trying to change the world. But almost in spite of themselves, they wind up imbuing Monkey House with more depth than one might expect from an album that pays slavish devotion to the synth-driven, new wave dance fashions of the early-to-mid-'80s. Aligning with producer Nick Rhodes (of Duran Duran fame), the Warhols follow up 2000's formidable Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia with what might as well be titled Thirteen Tales of Sex, Drugs and the Shallow Rock 'n' Roll lifestyle. Welcome to the Monkey House sounds like it was recorded beneath (and heavily informed by) the giant cocaine spoon that used to hang from the rafters at Studio 54. From the brief, opening title cut that laments the loss of individuality in today's music ("When no one knows what song they just heard / Unless someone on the radio tells them first") to the shamelessly derivative, synthesized wash that permeates the remainder of the album, the Warhols offer up ironic commentaries without once pandering to their audience. When Courtney Taylor-Taylor sings "Now think about me coming on to you / And maybe I would if I maybe knew you," he isn't just exposing the poseurs and empty-headed, walking billboard no-talents choking the pop radio airwaves. He's also throwing down a gauntlet: This is how pop music has always been. You want substance? Go read a Vonnegut novel. Pop music is about escape, three minutes of innocuous, head-bobbing, foot-tapping bliss that doesn't concern itself with figuring out the secrets of the universe.

"We Used to Be Friends" understands this logic and, not unlike Thirteen Tales' "Bohemian Like You," does its job in three-minute-and-change-attention-span range and vanishes. "Friends" is a song you might remember for its catchy beat after it's over, if you could be bothered to care. Ditto for "I Am A Scientist," which samples David Bowie's "Fashion," and nicely utilizes the funked-up guitar work of Nile Rodgers, highlighted by Taylor's disorienting staccato delivery of such meaningless yet catchy lines as "Analysis and freaky sensitivity / We've gotta live on science alone".

What is it, then, that lifts Monkey House above the level of self-consciously ironic detritus? Well, it's the comedown, of course. If nothing else, the Warhols understand the basic laws of physics: Objects do not ascend forever, and the plummet to earth can be a bitch. Especially when one's trying to get off of whatever drugs helped keep him in orbit so long. As with David Bowie's mid-'70s albums, particularly Station to Station and Low, which understood all too well the pitfalls of fame, fortune and easy access to cocaine and heroin, Monkey House detours from the vapid party long enough to touch on the dark side of pop stardom. The paranoid, desperate "Insincere Because I" -- with Taylor coming across like the most effective poster boy for rehab ever imagined -- and lines like "I am alone/ But adored," from the moving "You Were the Last High" (co-written by Evan Dando), add surprising depth to an album that seems custom-designed for the cut-out bin. The closing "You Come In Burned," with its dense, fuzzed-out production, may not be the manic finish the record's first half promises, but in its murk and misery the Warhols come up with a greater revelation and sense of purpose than if they'd merely done thirteen new wave retro retreads and called it a day.

Monkey House doesn't contain as many excellent songs as Thirteen Tales (which enjoyed more memorable hooks and catchier lyrics), but it is, unquestionably, the group's most thematically grounded and bracing record to date, celebrating and critiquing the messiness of the music world as effectively as any album in recent memory. No small accomplishment, considering how low the bar seems set at the outset.

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