Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Von Bondies - 'Love, Hate and Then There's You'

I’d like to think that one day The Von Bondies will get their due as underrated pop rock band. For three albums now, the VBs have been one of the better bluesy garage bands to come out of Detroit. They’re not as punky as The White Stripes or as raw as, ya know, The Stooges, but their songs are solid. Time and again, though, misfortune has struck the band. Just as the group started to make room in the mainstream with infectious single “C’mon C’mon,” bassist Carrie Ann Smith quit. Founding member Marcie Bolen followed two years later. Then Sire Records dropped the band from its roster, resulting in a five year silence between 2004’s Pawn Shoppe Heart and 2009’s Love, Hate and Then There’s You. And then there’s that one stupid incident where frontman Jason Stollsteimer badmouthed White Striper Jack White and his abilities as a producer – and then promptly got the shit punched out of him by ol’ Jackie Boy. It’s bad enough that the Bondies haven’t gotten their due; that they’ll probably live on as an embarrassing footnote in The White Stripes’ history is worse.

It’s with all of the above baggage that Love, Hate and Then There’s You comes off as a pleasant surprise – a pop rock record that’s slicker yet more ambient than what the band’s done before, and somehow better for it. Pawn Shoppe Heart is a solid blues rock piece, but at times it comes off a little too much like BluesHammer from Ghost World – the riffs could be too cock rock-y; the lyrics too “this is the blues, man!” cliché. And since going back to the (quite good) raw power of the White-produced Lack of Communication would in some small way be admitting defeat, Stollsteimer, drummer Don Blum and new members Leann Banks and Christy Hunt fully embrace glossy radio rock. A lot of Pawn Shoppe’s nervous energy is gone, but Blum insures that tracks like “This is Our Perfect Crime” get a little bit of percussive energy underneath all those layers of vocals.

Carrie Ann Smith’s “Not That Social” aside, The Von Bondies have always been Stollsteimer’s pulpit. And while he takes sole songwriting credit in the album’s liner notes, Hunt and Banks make their presence felt throughout. The duo chimes in on cuts like “Shut Your Mouth” and “Chancer,” showing a range that escapes Stollsteimer. Where Jason pretty much only has the haunted croon thing going, these ladies can go from rock to bubblegum pop in a second’s notice.

In the end, Love, Hate and Then There’s You isn’t too mind-blowing. It’s still just another pop rock record, and what Stollsteimer and co. say isn’t as important as how they say it. It’s short at about 35 minutes length, but consecutive spins might leave some listeners bored. But for a group that seemed dead and adrift three years ago, this record is surely a triumph. At times flirting with goth (“Pale Bride”), glam (“Shut Your Mouth”) and pure, unadulterated power pop (“21st Birthday”), Love, Hate and Then There’s You is a good, not great, return for The Von Bondies.

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