Saturday, December 05, 2009

Flash Metal Suicide: Tsar


LA's TSAR would find out that it's brand of catchy 70's arena power pop mixed with a dose of some glitz n' glam music was entirely out of it's time. Plus, the cliched bad timing, and the lack of a proper scene of bands to tour with had helped to compound the problems of the band in finding a proper audience. Their sound which was too pop punk for many people's taste, and then too rock n' roll for others' tastes (big guitar solos, huge arena rock sound, etc) put them squarely in the territory of nowhereland as far as most audiences were concerned. But I get it--even if there's only a comparatively speaking few others who do, as well.

I didn't hear the first album at the time--first off, I think that they properly weren't promoted enough really to reach the average audience! A friend of mine whose taste that I trust told me to buy the album, as it was probably in his top ten rock albums of all time. I saw a copy of it for 5 bucks in a used cd store and picked it up, I think, this was the year 2003 or so--well out of the album and band's heyday (if you could call it that). Prior to that, i'd heard the song "Kathy Fong Is The Bomb" somewhere and liked it, and also heard their cover of the Backstreet Boys' "Larger Than Life", but done in a vintage 70's KISS style. For sure you get the sense that the band's record collection has alot of guilty pleasures in it; ballroom glitz and flashing TSAR sign and all.

Unfortunately perhaps miscast as yet another band in a seemingly endless line of pop punk bands groomed for "despicable" mainstream top 40 status, there's definetely something upon first listen that maybe was misperceived about TSAR on their first album from the year 2000 (seriously, it's hard to believe this was nearly a full decade ago!)--highly compressed, polished punk with ultra catchy choruses, courtesy of Rob Cavallo (Green Day). And their choice of bands to tour with at the time likely didn't help--SR-71, Duran Duran, etc. But on further inspection, it's clear that the band was doing something different--way overblown guitar god guitar solos, vintage Cheap Trick/ Sweet powerpop glam riffs; tongue firmly in cheek, but entirely getting the vibe and underlying greatness of the 70's worship that not every similar band really understood.

"Calling All Destroyers" has to be one of the best leadoff tracks of all time, in my opinion--it rocks hard, but never loses sight of melody or catchiness. As a matter of fact, the first four tracks (the first album never even quite matches the power of the first 4 songs, although the second half is decidedly slower and more ballad oriented) are so damned good, that it's hard to not consider this as a real true classic, up there with the best albums of all time. It's that good. Principle songwriter and singer/ guitarist Jeff Whalen does such a damned good job, that I find it hard to believe that he's not Rick Nielsen or Chapman/ Chinn--he can seriously write hit songs on command, effortlessly.

I also find it extremely hard to believe that he wasn't asked to write hit songs for other people. It was probably connections and "who you know and who you blow" and all that probably, but in a perfect world he would have been bigger and much more well known than he is, even if Tsar never took off. I seem to remember him saying that after the release of the debut album and them being dropped after it going nowhere, that he'd moved back in with his mom or something like that, that he was that broke. I dunno, maybe the world just wasn't ready for orange leather pants, and Jeff's kinda odd looking Ziggy Stardust gone mod look. Or his wide eyed enthusiasm (literally, he's got big, intense eyes). Or Jeff's obsession with wearing the American Flag as a cape onstage while he was rocking out.

There's always sort of a reason why bands don't connect with wider audiences. As mentioned before, the pop punk thing probably alienated them from the rock n' roll audiences, and the rock n' roll thing probably alienated them from the pop punk audiences. I could see people wondering why these guys were whipping out rock poses and huge solos and classic rock riffs, and seeing it as overly retro or maybe trying too hard or something like that. That's what I love about the band, because when I think of power pop bands that are heavy on the "power", i'm usually at odds to come up with something that I think is really rocking, and really melodic. TSAR is both, and I can see them splitting their own vote. Usually bands are aping the Beatles or are jangling in an indie pop way, innocuous and derivative enough to not offend purists of genres so as to have more appeal in a certain genre.

Truthfully perhaps, Whalen isn't the strongest singer, and i've heard other people mention this. It's possible that his vocals, coupled with the fact that he eschewed some sort of futuristic glam rocker thing (he mentioned in an interview that I can't find now that he'd admitted that he's a "odd looking dude"), could have been the reason for their popularity ceiling. He doesn't really have your typical gruff, throaty rocker voice, but has a voice well suited to pop songs. Looks count for alot in popular music, particularly the vibe of your frontman, whether people can relate to him in some sort of rock n' roll fantasy type of way where he's doing what they always wanted to do or be, or whether they're baffled as to what he's trying to accomplish. But I think that he has a youthful charm to his style and a naive exuberance that works well for the music. Whatever works, as they say.

"I Don't Wanna Break Up" is your typical love song on lyrical analysis, but the slightly melancholy vibe suits the concern of the song. "Silver Shifter" is a bit slower, a mid tempo rocker that eventually kicks into a massive pre-chorus/ chorus crescendo. "Kathy Fong is the Bomb" follows; back to the up-tempo pop grandeur, sounding not unlike something you'd hear off of Def Leppard's "Hysteria", but with one more arm and the attitude and conviction of the band on "Pyromania". "Teen Wizards" starts out with a fluffy piano/ chimes/ understated vocal before it kicks into some vintage Ramones territory, and then kicks into a big Thin Lizzy dual guitarmony lead in the middle breakdown section. The two big ballads on side two--"Ordinary Gurl" and "The Girl Who Wouldn't Die" have excellent major/ minor chord changes and embellishments, and have excellently overblown aforementioned guitar god solos courtesy of lead guitarist Dan Kern. Kern also sings two songs, "MONoSTEReo" and "Disappear", good pop songs in themselves. "Afradio Pt One & Pt. Two", starts out on some psychedelic noises, then kicks into a furious rocker (there's multiple parts in the "Afradio" series, as evidenced by some demos that they'd done that i'd heard).

The thing that makes the album so great is that on almost every song, there's a pre-chorus that would be most bands' chorus in it's strength. Much like Ginger and the Wildhearts, they know that a killer pre-chorus makes alot of difference, as there's always some structural heightening that happens with another section in a song, leading up to a smaller crescendo amidst the individual songs. It has a great effect, because the songs keep on launching off and off into the stratosphere. And the production sounds amazing--sure it's super slick, but I grew up with big sounding arena rock albums in the 80's as a young boy, and this caters to the aspect of larger than life albums that scream "guilty pleasure" but in the best possible way.

The backing vocal harmonies are absolutely excellent--Jeff Whalen sings high enough, but listen to t
he higher harmony--it's insanely high. The guitars are overdubbed lots--there's acoustic guitar embellishments here and there, too, and to my ears, it sounds like there's nylon string acoustics on here, which you don't usually hear.....it's usually metal string acoustic guitars. So there's a different touch right there.

The budget for this album must have been tremendous, and considering that it didn't sell much at all, i'm guessing that the label--Hollywood Records--lost a ton on it. But you can't accuse the band of not giving it their all--if you watch live footage of the band then--and after--they were incredibly tight, infectious, energetic, fun, cheeky and retro without being regressive and perhaps almost too modern (hence the pop punk tags/ misunderstanding).

The cover of the album also is interesting-- it seems to have some sort of innocence, in a girl pointing up to a sky with an apparition in the sky, surrounded by businessmen. I think that it could also symbolize the enthusiasm and the ideal about being in a band, before the business end comes in, the bump and grind of music being business in the end. "Hey man, you guys are great and all, but it's nothing personal....".

The thing about the album that makes it so cool is that it seems to reference itself in a couple of songs--hence the mention of "silver shifter" in "I Don't Wanna Break Up"; and the mention to "Kathy Fong" in followup album "Band-Girls-Money"'s title track. And the band's respect of the history of rock music had came up in an interview with Jeff around the 2000 range of the promotion of the first record, perhaps addressing the misconceptions about the surface value sound that some listeners never got past:

"you know how bands from the ‘60s like the Beatles or Bowie (who I guess really isn’t the '60s, but sitll), those older bands are really influenced by Chuck Berry and Elvis? But then their music doesn’t sound anything like that, even though in the end you got the sense that all they really wanted was to just play 'Summertime Blues' or whatever. If they got to play what they wanted, they’d just play "Good Golly Miss Molly" all day. I guess it’s something like that . I’d say 90% of what we’re compared to, which varies so much depending on the listener, is not really the prime influence on us." (original interview appeared here)

Then.....nothing for 4-5 years, until the "Band-Girls-Money" album was recorded and then released. That amount of time, in musical years, is ages. Trends come and go and the industry changes so much that it can spell the end of bands that aren't in it for the right reasons, or it can simply tear them apart from too much turmoil of infighting and label pressures to sell and all that other shit that turns the whole ideal of the fun of being in a rock n' roll band, into a very un-fun task. Thankfully, TSAR was never about trends or any other bullshit; just about plugging into the world's biggest amp and rocking out and having fun. And it shows.

"Band-Girls-Money"--with a new rhythm section-- in what it somewhat lacks in the first albums' catchiness, makes up for it in pure rock power. It's much, much rawer, and grittier. The polish of the first album is
largely gone (save for some big rock drum sounds), and in it's place are more overdriven guitars, more fuzz guitars, and most noticeably, Jeff Whalen's harder edged vocal sound where he's screaming/ shouting more. There's also less correction/ polish on the vocals than there was on the first album. I imagine that the more live sound translated a bit better to their live show. I like the two albums both in different ways, as they're not trying for the same thing.

I remember them coming through town on the "Band-Girls-Money" tour in 2005, opening for Juliette Lewis and the licks, and I couldn't go for some reason--no money, other committment or something like that. I really wish i'd gone, because that's probably the only and last time they'd come through here, and it would have been nice to talk to them. From interviews, i've got the impression that they appreciate fans that know about their history and what they're trying to do, musically.

The title track starts off with some really blown out fuzz guitar, and i'm se
rious when I say that it's some of the closest approximation to James Williamson's stuff in the Stooges--endless soloing for no apparent reasoning, but I happen to love excessive soloing, and Dan Kern pulls this off with amazing results. The lyrics seem to deal with a fictitional character that's got the band, girls and money, but somehow, lyrically, it seems to deal with the whole ideal that TSAR had when they started out, whether or not they actually hit the major big time or not.

Here's the official video for the song:



Note the lyrical reference to "you gotta live with your mom and dad"...so I think that there's some fiction and reality in the song. "Wanna Get Dead" is a grimy sort of three chord garage/ punk rocker, and it's followed by "The Love Explosion", which sounds the most like a carry over from the first album's days, as it's the most undeniably pop song on an otherwise pretty straightforward rock album, with it's "ah ah ah ah oh, ah ah ah uh oh" chorus line, sounding like a brother/ sister song of maybe "I Don't Wanna Break Up".



Sometimes I wish that there were a couple more songs like this on "Band-Girls-Money", as even live around that time, the band didn't feature too many songs from the debut album in their setlist. But that's just a small gripe. "Superdeformed" is a mid tempo rocker, featuring some self autobiographical lyrics that are wrapped up in fiction:
"Hell in 1999 I was lookin' for a little action, droppin' outta school and working for the FBI, I was goin' with a girl but man she put my shit in traction, and now i've been reborn and i'm superdeformed aye aye", and slightly more absurd: "Jesus is just alright, but he never got you high, I been reborn, superdeformed".

"Straight" is one of the harder, angriest rockers on the album--punk/ hardcore energy with a rock n' roll flair that they do so well. "Wrong" sounds like it could have also been on the first album--very melodic and featuring an excellent chorus. "Everybody's Fault But Mine" has kind of a darker, psychotic riff and a killer chorus with an excellent backup vocal section. The grit and power of the album can sometimes overpower the melodies at times, but the chorus in this song is as strong as anything that they've done (with another in joke/ past song reference in "monostereo"), sans maybe the handclaps and alot of the overdubs and embellishments. "Conqueror Worm" is a pop punk song, good energy and execution. "Startime" is another song about being in a rock n' roll band, ending with the line "get ready to let it rock on", with a cool fake ending where you'd think it would bash out a couple of times for synchronized fist pumps before ebbing out completely, yet it goes on for a few more blasts. Ending off the album is "You Can't Always Want What You Get", another classic rock reference in a play off the old Stones' song title. The only ballad on the album, it closes off the album amidst Christmas bells and really huge Slash via Neil Young fuzz guitar soloing from Dan Kern, while suggesting a more optimistic musical mood than some of the darker and angrier sounds on the record.

Oddly enough, one of the best songs was never on the album, but as a bonus track with a single--"Rebel Rouser", that I would have suggested to be on the album, and as a single. It really rocks the sort of "Ballroom Blitz" type Sweet influence, but has this really gigantic cock rock Guns N' Roses thing going.

If you're looking for bands that rock hard with great melodies and harmonies, check 'em out--it's probably too late for the band to have any present or future, but they sure as hell have a past, man. In the meantime, enjoy some live performances from the old days:




--Ry Crooder
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