Portland, Oregon’s Dandy Warhols released their latest album, THIS MACHINE earlier this week.
Post-greatest hits life is a strange spot for any band. The greatest hits package can mean a few things: a label contract being fulfilled, a record label believing a band’s better days are over, a stop-gap between long delayed releases, or a combination of these things. The Dandy Warhols had been free of Capitol records for years before the label pushed out their “Capitol Years Greatest Hits” collection. The assortment of songs holds up, and it’s a reminder of a band trying hard to do a lot of things. Trying hard to be cool. Trying hard to sell records. Trying hard to write good music. Probably not in that order. This week’s THE MACHINE is quite a different story.
The Dandy Warhols’ first three major label releases rank among some of my favorite pop-rock albums in recent memory (THE DANDY WARHOLS COME DOWN, 13 TALES OF URBAN BOHEMIA, WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE). It’s worth mentioning that with each album, the band seemed to be getting more and more inside of its own head. 2003’s WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE was a poppy, super polished affair, but it came at a price to the band who seemed to have their creative rights usurped after turning in the original mix to the label. By bringing in a new engineer and producer, WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE was created into the slick album free of the band’s input. 2009 marked the re-release of the album but with the Dandy’s original mix. This re-release, THE DANDY WARHOLS ARE SOUND, gives us an idea of what the Dandy’s originally turned in to Capitol. While it’s by no means terrible, it does show that in this case, the band’s instincts and production may not have been the best choice for the album. Since 2003, the band (specifically singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor) has become more and more involved in the production of their albums, and this has led to mixed results. ODDITORIUM was a mixed bag of fantastic songs, nice moments, and horrendous garbage. Their first independent album EARTH TO THE DANDY WARHOLS seemed to be a step in the right direction. Many of the songs seemed to have the hooks reminiscent of the band’s early work, and a few of the songs seemed as if they could be worthy of reaching a new audience.
That, unfortunately, didn’t seem to happen, which leaves us here with THIS MACHINE.
Post-greatest hits life is a strange spot for any band, and the Dandy Warhols seemed to have fought back against obscurity with a whimper and a shrug. The album’s 11 tracks rarely come close to any kind of sweet pop-nugget that would have been featured on any the band’s first three albums. Instead, we’ve been left with a handful of nice moments, but largely, the album is forgettable. The instrumental track “Alternative Power to the People” lacks any memorable mood or instrumentation, the cover of “16 Tons” sounds like an afterthought created after the rest of the album was written, “Don’t Shoot She Cried” sounds like a self-indulgent exercise. Other tracks aren’t bad, but they never seem to capitalize on their promise: “Well They’re Gone” has nice moments, but the lack of any differentiation or dynamics (along with low-hanging lyrics) squander the opportunity. “SETI vs the Wow! Signal” feels like a B-side from ODDITORIUM, and the braindead lyrics nearly ruin some nice melodic moments. “Enjoy Yourself” sounds like it was written to be a radio single, but questionable choices in production and delivery lets the song lose any chance at crossing over to other audiences. Unfortunately, none of the songs released on THIS MACHINE would really have deserved a place on their greatest hits. None of these songs feel like they received the same delicate attention that “Godless” did, the hooks that “We Used to be Friends” has, or the fun felt in “Boys Better”.
I don’t want to bash this album completely though, because it’s not terrible. It’s just forgettable. It’s definitely more consistent than ODDITORIUM, and it has some songs that should outlive this album. The closer, “Slide”, for example comes pretty close to being a great song. This song, feels free of any attitude or irony; it’s the only song on the entire album that feels earnest. It feels like the band is writing music that they would actually listen to in this song. Most of the rest of the album feels like the Dandy Warhols are trying to write Dandy Warhols songs, which is a shame. At this point it seems that every member of the band has an external side-project to which they contribute music — without the focus that some of their previous albums had, THIS MACHINE sounds like a band going through the motions.
Since 2003, the band has been retreating deeper and deeper into its own head, and I’m afraid that THIS MACHINE is no exception. I would say that this is an album only for fans of the band, but I think that it will only serve to make the audience pine for earlier, better, brighter times.