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By Jena Ardell
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By Alex Distefano
Digging In the Dirt
The Dirtbombs make the perfect soundtrack to our country’s woes
The end is nigh. Between the war in Iraq and the tanking economy, shit is fucked-up. On the positive side, humanity’s destruction makes rock & roll more exciting. After all, there’s no better music to both amplify and appease our worries of self-annihilation than guitars that ring like air-raid sirens; a double-bass, two-drum front that rolls like an army tank; and a singer who cackles wildly as he stomps through civilization’s ashes. In other words, we needed the Dirtbombs’ latest punk rock & soul opus, We Have You Surrounded, to give our national angst some rhythm.
It is the fifth full-length from Michigan’s lo-fi genre rebels—and their best release yet. Over the years, the style-amorous band have tackled everything from Christmas folk and glam rock to soul nuggets and bubble-gum pop. But these days, 43-year-old front man Mick Collins’ ears are ringing with the sound of “urban paranoia.”
His pessimism about our Brave New World was inspired by national news broadcasts and the song “Leopardman at C&A,” whose lyrics were initially written by graphic novelist Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) for Bauhaus years ago. Collins spent two years trying to track down the song before realizing Bauhaus never recorded it. So he wrote his scuzz ’n’ fuzz Dirtbombs version and threw “Leopardman at C&A” on Surrounded—setting a songwriting tone with lines from Moore such as “We’ll hunt down television sets and kill them for their skins.”
Collins’ cynicism about the world starts at home, though. In the case of the Dirtbombs, ground zero has always been Detroit. “If you lived there, you’d be paranoid. About everything,” Collins says, punctuating the gloomy sentiment with his deep, trademark “What, me worry?” laughter. “Apart from the occasional concerns everyone has living in a city, you worry the city is going to run out of money and there won’t be any cops to help you out. The infrastructure is crumbling.”
No matter from what great heights the bricks fall, Collins is just the survivor to sing about it. He’s been a stalwart fixture on the garage-rock scene for the past two decades, through a time when Detroit’s raw rock & roll acts were supposed to make the Motor City the next Seattle. (Long story short: The White Stripes made it and moved away). You could fill any indie label’s roster with all the acts boosted by Collins’ sonic idea factories, from the Gories’ noisy punk blues in the early ’90s through the Voltaire Brothers’ funk stomp in more recent times. But the Dirtbombs have really been Collins’ calling card since the blue-balled feedback of 1998’s Horndog Fest, and onstage, the six-piece is a rock & roll revue to be reckoned with. Good thing, too, because the political cabal isn’t the only cracked machine in Collins’ mind.
“The days of the corporate domination of the music industry are almost over,” says Collins, who has always recorded for independent labels. “It’s completely leveled the playing field. It gets rid of everyone that doesn’t have any talent.”
Nonetheless, Collins’ point on the main source of musician income is on the money: To earn cash, you have to hit the road. He says that bands now “put out the record to support the tour, not the other way around. The record is just another souvenir you buy at the show. It only benefits bands that have something to deliver in person, which is fine by me.”
Collins offers high-intensity performances both onstage and in the studio; the singer isn’t one to waste his breath eking out a pity party. On Surrounded, Collins uses his hefty baritone to cheekily assess the wreckage. He cries out about the “sandpapery feeling across my skin lets me know . . . you got what you wanted” on “It’s Not Fun Until They See You Cry.” On “Ever Lovin’ Man,” his voice cracks as he wails about wanting to hold his lady tight while “the empire falls.” And an itchy bassline gets scratched on “I Hear the Sirens” before he warns, “I hear the sirens calling out to me/They are saying you will never be free/Long as you hear me.”
Despite the crises, the Dirtbombs are utterly defiant. With Mick Collins as their fearless leader, the band offer triumphant, parade-leading momentum at a time when our political optimism is getting steamrolled. Because, really, if we’re all just swirling down the crapper, “La Fin du Monde” should be sung by Collins in French with the rattle and hum of Detroit’s finest booming out behind him.
The Dirtbombs perform with the Starlite Desperation and Pistolero at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Wed., 9 p.m. $12. 21+.