Album review: Gringo Star takes two steps forward, one step back on ‘Count Yer Lucky Stars’
Young bands have latched on to retro rock with such increasing eagerness that it’s only a matter of time before some rock critic coins a hip, catchy term that will blur all nuance with a stroke of the pen (Fuzzcore? Modwave?).
A prominent subgroup of these bands — which includes Those Darlins, Times New Viking, Wavves and Harlem, among others — has taken to reupholstering garage textures with varying degrees of originality and success.
Atlanta’s Gringo Star is part of what may be the largest regional scene fostering this trend, sharing it with mainstays the Black Lips as well as burgeoning talents like Turf War and the Booze. On their second release, “Count Yer Lucky Stars,” the quartet makes strong arguments both for and against the viability of their approach.
At the outset, “Count Yer Lucky Stars” shakes and stomps with eerie, monstrous hooks, adjectives which should be taken quite literally. In my imagination, the video for lead single and opening track, “Shadows,” is a haunted house party. Hipsters rock out with Frankenstein, Dracula, a mummy and Drunk Hulk, each with a cheap tallboy in hand. The riffs, often ridiculously simple, weave and lurch in half time with dark and syrupy surprises around each corner.
Four of the first five album tracks carry a similar aesthetic. (The slacker romp “Beatnik Angel Georgie” is the only exception.) They’re cocktails of garage swagger and minor key raucousness: One part the Sonics, one part the Cramps, shake and serve over ice. On these cuts the band steers straight where others swerve unnecessarily. They make no ineffectual gestures toward lo-fi production, no effort to stretch the brief tunes longer than is needed. Even handclaps and banal lyrics can’t sink them. You find yourself with the urge to clap along while the singer delivers his lines with a deftness that makes the words mere shapes, colored by his desperation.
But somewhere along the line this approach fails. Too often the elementary melodies are laid painfully bare, usually because guitars echo each other too closely while drums do little more than toe the line. At other moments, overwhelming predictability fails to direct attention away from cringe-worthy cut and paste lyrics, and the entire house made of garage popsicle sticks crumbles. The second half of the record would be entirely forgettable were it not for the lovely and wistful southern shuffle “Light in the Sky.”
There is no fault in reconstituting the primeval paradigms of rock. Many bands, including Gringo Star, are capable of doing it exceptionally well. But when we know how the story ends the plot has to be all the more interesting. Though their approach is most often to hew close to their influences, Gringo Star is at its best when it looks back with a wink and a nod.