Smoke Rings

Getting silly, rocking out, and dissing the president with Detroit's Electric Six.

One of the most surprising things about an Electric Six show is the lack of prop comedy. Despite a songbook stuffed with jacked-up disco-metal and lyrics praising dance, decadence, and nuclear war, the Detroit band's live show is pretty low on frills; save some aerobic moves from singer Dick Valentine, the only nod to the theatrical is when Valentine reveals the cash in his wallet. "They're like a normal band from a psychotic world!" yelled a friend halfway through a recent set.

In a sense, that's exactly what they are. Their latest album, Senor Smoke, is finally available in the U.S. after a year of import-or-illegal-download infamy. "We were signed to Warner U.K.," says Valentine before a show in Philadelphia on the tour that stops by Neumo's on Wednesday, March 15, "and Warner U.S. had no interest." Senor Smoke opens with "Rock'n'Roll Evacuation," a berserk anthem that signified plenty even before Katrina gave the term "evacuation" a deeper resonance ("We are disposable creations/They're throwing us away/Ignoring everything that we do/And everything that we say/Mr. President, make a little money sending people you don't know to Iraq/Mr. President, I don't like you/You don't know how to rock!"). With its images of "hungry little creatures feeding upon lies" and declarations of futility ("You can play your electric guitar, but it ain't gonna change the world/You can get all emotional on me, and cry like a little girl—cry!"), it's the best "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" since Ronnie talked to Russia, the apocalyptic horror bolstered by its giddy lunacy.

As soon we've been safely evacuated, we're riding with Dick in the devil limousine as he injects "Life During Wartime" with amphetamines and asks if we're ready to bite him. Even "Jimmy Carter," a favorite of folks who prefer "Yellow Ledbetter" to the Quad City DJs, has cries of "Backstreet's back!" and Ronald Reagan dreaming of horses and nuclear war. The only way you might survive the Six's world of power chords, future boys, keyboard doodles, Jackson 5 reunion tours, and taxis to nowhere is to give in, check the appropriate box for a boy or girl, be his dark angel (his baby don't need no vibrator, you know), and catch the dance epidemic. Not that his "Dance-a-thon 2005" is totally safe: "Baby, get up off the floor/That man you with, he ain't no innocent man/He's a killer, child/I've seen him rip apart a young girl with his bare hands."

The songs on Senor Smoke are denser than "Gay Bar" and "Danger! High Voltage," the novelty hits from their 2003 debut, Fire, with less focus on a single catch phrase or guitar hook. With their comically detailed stories of horrors seeking horrors and improper dancing, the Smoke songs sound like a crunked-up New York Dolls, adding 30 years of pop trash, from new wave to nu-metal, to the Dolls' "Trash." Would you ever, could you ever cyber with Frankenstein?

"I brought the Talking Heads and Devo; the other guys brought Black Sabbath and Kiss," says Valentine of his contributions to the band's sound, which should evolve further on their third album, already finished and ready for release in the fall. "It's more of a driving-around-in-the- summer kind of record," he says. "There's a rockabilly song, a Latin salsa-type thing. We're at the point where we'll just do the 12 or 13 songs we want to do. Before, we had a formula, but now we're doing whatever we want. If it comes out as a merengue song, so be it."

Like the Dolls, the band's notoriety and press attention outweighs their actual popularity. They've yet to release an album that didn't get them dropped from a label, and on the first leg of their current tour, they had the dubious honor of having a far-better-selling opening act, the dire Interpol imitators She Wants Revenge. Thankfully, the band's got a sense of humor about this, too. "We tour extensively," says Valentine. "Everywhere we go, we've got 150 people who know every word. We're never going to be Nickelback, but this is the next best thing. If you continually throw these people a bone, you'll be semifamous for life."

You wouldn't be wrong to call them sillybillies, but unlike your average rock Carrot Tops, E6's lyrics aren't empty look-at-me eccentricities but the standard themes of love, excitement, and frustration amplified and surrealized for maximum entertainment value and catharsis. Lines like "We'll karaoke all night long/We'll Macarena till the break of dawn" may be quirky, but the "We'll drive around till the morning light/All night, all night, all night, all night" that follows is timeless. The Six shatter quotation marks with gaudy force, rightfully refusing to remove either the wink or the energy from their celebratory boogie. It's a trait most flagrant on their bombastic cover of Queen's "Radio Ga Ga," already a grandiose expression of affection for the FM dial ("You made us laugh/You made us cry/You made us feel/Like we could fly!"). Like all the best comedy, it's funny because it's true. Never letting their self-awareness hinder them, Electric Six are the kind of band that kick-oriented rock-hounds like Steve Jones and bohemian deconstructionists like John Lydon could agree on, having their cake and getting it on everybody.

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