Portland is one album prouder and the world one chimera of grunge-pop and soft-psychedelia richer thanks to eleven new songs by the The Dandy Warhols. This Machine is fresh from the band’s own recording studio, The Odditorium, where guest musicians David J and Miles Zuniga collaborated with the band to write songs recorded by engineer Jeremy Sherrer. Throughout their career, The Dandy Warhols have whirled their way through a host of rock genres, but their ninth release offers up an incarnation of their fundamental style that is more sinister than ever before.
Although frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor calls the album “stripped down” and “woody,” the “machine” sounds like a spaceship; one launched from a crowded garage into a musical orbit of guitar riffs, upbeat drumming and blended vocals. While they have been known to fall into shoegazing in the past, the effects that The Dandy Warhols use in this album will leave the audience engaged by the variation between each song.
The band’s biographies were composed by author Richard Morgan, which only seems fitting for an album that conjures images of sci-fi stories. This Machine opens with two songs reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Something Wicked this Way Comes,” melding synth effects with hauntingly slow, severe minor vocals. Album opener “Sad Vacation” is eerie, the looped guitar intro and repetitive bass giving the song a fast heartbeat as though the band is running after the listener with a tauntingly sing-songy melody. The lyrics “You get me right down to a crawl” and “You can watch me walk away/ or you can beg/but I will never stay/no way/no way/no way” don’t help to lighten the mood. The electric guitar fizzles in and out with feedback and effects, creating a disoriented feeling that “The Autumn Carnival” picks up and flies with. The song is introduced with a deceptively positive guitar riff, but a low, whispering voice is soon layered in. The electric and acoustic guitar and background vocals often echo the main melodic catch. It’s the noise of a dismal carnival, complete with dying Ferris wheels and crying children—-and it cannot be ignored.
After setting such a creepy mood, the following two songs seem carefully selected to counteract it. “Enjoy Yourself” and “Alternative Power to the People” are less gloom and more rock and roll. “Enjoy Yourself” is led by the vocal chanting, jumping into the dance party: “I used to be cool/used to be a fool/too cool for rules/too cool for school” and later on recommending listeners “Look at yourself/enjoy your health/say what you mean.” The down-to-earth lyrics seem to explain The Dandy Warhols’ goal for the album with simple hooks allowed to shine. “Alternative Power to the People” ditches vocals altogether, but carries on the buzz of rock in a more psychedelic way. It’s trance-like in its repetition and upbeat.
“The Dandy Warhols – Well They’re Gone” shakes things up a little with a jaunty, tango-like groove. An accordion creeps in at first, slowly joined by light drums and a little bit of Spanish-style guitar. Taylor-Taylor’s low and sultry vocals return to mourn “There was a time/I resigned/resigned/myself to a lonely climb.”
This Machine forges ahead with The Dandy Warhols’ sincere, uncomplicated lyrics. “Rest Your Head” offers up the advice “Don’t you worry til tomorrow/close your eyes and let your mind release. A cover of “16 Tons” tells the story of hard working miners, grounding the album in the stripped sound. “I Am Free” sails back into confessional power pop (“My darkest past is fading fast/my soul is cleansed/this tortured heart is on the mend again”). “Rest Your Head” and “I Am Free” show off the real magic of This Machine. The songs toss dismal background vocals that sound like a glum choir of angels in with catchy guitar melodies, pauses and build-ups and vamping. The songs might seem cheesy at first listen, but The Dandy Warhols seem out to construct moods more than anything else—and their creation of a lullaby-grunge song achieves just that.
Goofy analogies in the song “SETI vs. The Wow Signal,” such as “It’s like a rocket to a cave man/ talking on a cell phone/ staring at the spaceman” hint at the band’s confidence. It’s a brazen throwback to the band’s earliest, grungy hits with vocally led conglomerations of more traditional verse-chorus structures, electric guitars and classic rock drumming.
The Dandy Warhols may have slid to a slightly more sober, darker place for this album, but if the titular “Machine” is a metaphor for the band (and not a spaceship); it’s one in tip-top condition, about to be fuelled by ecstatic fans.