There is something so seductively simple about great music that comes from genuine people who feel what they do. The sad state that music is in these days is reflective of a shiny veneer that, when peeled away, reveals little. Everything is loaded up with style, but lacks in substance. The best visual analogy I can make about the state of music right now is that you run at the water, thinking it is a lake, and you break some ribs when jump in and realize too late it is as deep as a puddle.
I think that is what struck us about this Michigan City Vandals album. It is the opposite of that. In a time of all style, this one got us with surprising substance. An album as genuine as it is raw, in a sea of fakes. That alone merits a listen. But the ethereal (yet somehow grounded) vocal stylings of lead singer and bassist Julee Larent will lull you to this CD. But unlike most Sirens, her and her band mates won’t leave you stranded on the rocks. If anything, you will be sitting back, lighting a cigarette, smiling contently, like you just had good sex.
This album harkens back to a time when music just felt more real. Think of some of the better indie music from the 90′s and you have a decent feel, but not a full representation of the music. Infuse the almost garage aesthetic of this three piece band with some of the passion of 60′s songwriters, and some of the riffs of 70′s guitar rock, and you have an even better example.
Another noteworthy thing about Michigan City Vandals that is so remarkable is the altruism of the band. This is a band that makes music to make music, and not to role around in the piles of money they acquire. Do you know of another band who donated 100% of the profits of their first album to building a Habitat For Humanity home? Well Michigan City Vandals did in their hometown of Benton Harbor, Michigan. That generosity is all but unheard of currently in music, so when you hear about it, it only makes you appreciate the band and what they do that much more.
So for those not in the know, Michigan City Vandals is a rock band out of Michigan (duh) consisting of Julee Lauent on vocals and bass playing duties. She has this wonderful way of swinging, vocally, between soft, sensual vocals at times and a much harder, darker sound that is a duality most would not be able to execute without stumbling on themselves, and Julee executes it with ballerina like grace and riot grrrl like precision that harkens back to female musicians like Kim Deal and Nina Gordon. On a song like “Say It To My Face”, she grabs you by the collar and does not let up until you recorgnize that she is there and she is undeniably powerful. Yet on a song like “ Already Gone” she shows a raw vulnerability most people would never be brave enough to show to the masses. She will have you truly impressed (and slightly smitten), and you will find yourself wondering why she is not more of a household name. Hey music, do us a favor? Less Britneys and Ke$has and more Julee Laurents please?
The guitar responsibilities are upheld by Mike Briney, who also does accompanying vocals at certain times on the album. When you hear the sickly, crawling lead riff on the third track Down, you will know just where this guy stands musically. There are certain points on the album where his guitar playing sounds like a genuinely perfect mashing of 80′s metal solos (screeching) and heavy nineties indie and grunge (crunching) and the versatility of sounds he shows on the album is more than some guitarist show across multiple albums. Lastly, gluing this whole beautiful beast together is the percussion work of Mike Clancy. A band is always only as tight as their drummer, because the drummer is essentially the spinal column of the band. What is nice about Mike’s drumming is he never eats up the tracks, which so many drummers are guilty of. His fills come at the time when they accentuate songs. They never feels pasted or plastered on, and he does not drum with the “Look at me!” ideal that so many modern percussionists seem to. Also worth noting, his drum work and Julee’s perfectly subtle bass playing work off each other like yin and yang. This is a band that finds their rhythm together beautifully.
We have reviewed a good number of albums and tracks in the last few weeks, but this CD has been making the rounds in our office for a good month now. If you can listen to a song like “Say It To My Face” and not be genuinely pumped up when Julee’s vocals climb to a scream and this three piece band rocks so hard they sound like a band that has twice as many members, than it might be a good time to check your pulse. And then to be guided back down to Earth so gently by a song like “Spinning” is exactly why we got into this music gig in the first place. This album is raw emotion. There is a distinguishable line in the sand between people who make music because they eat and bleed music, and people who make music because it buys them boats and planes. This music seeps from their pours, and we have not gotten a more raw and rocking album in we don’t know how long, but we do know in hearing this now, that it has been too long.
Also, we feel obligated to talk about The Drinking Song. There are about 107 reasons we like this song, and to list them all would take up far too much room, but you NEED to hear this song. It is every type of song we love in one song, and it truly exemplifies the true versatility of this band.
At any one time while listening to this album, people can walk in the room and think it is 70′s garage rock, country, folk, metal, indie, grunge and a multitude of other styles that truly embody a massive margin of time and sounds. And yet, somehow, every one of those sounds fit these three like a glove. We honestly have too much we like about the album to keep going on with this review and not sound like journalist groupies, but above all else, we were grateful we got this album to review. It reminded us that there are still bands who do this for all the RIGHT reasons, and do it incredibly well.
And they get extra points for the surreal album art by David Wilkenson, that looks like something Kurt Cobain would have painted. It is both dark and mesmerizing. And thusly, the reoccurring theme of duality shows itself again. Dark and welcoming, strong yet vulnerable. You see those beautiful extremes achieved many times here, and you feel them as you hear them, guided by the Michigan City Vandals, as your pilots.
Overall (4 stars)
Sometimes we forget how much we love REAL music, only because we get inundated with the fake. The Back To Life album by the Michigan City Vandals reminded us why we do this in the first place, because we love music. And this album reminds us just how much.