ELECTRIC SIX – Streets Of Gold

Electric Six’s debut album, 2003’s ‘Fire’, was a runaway success. On that record, the band’s disco/garage rock hybrid sound caught the ears of a generation and, back when such things were important, its massive singles gained heavy rotation on the music TV channels. The live shows that followed stoked up the fun, with “dance commander” Dick Valentine, indeed, showing a decent command of an audience looking for big grooves and cheap thrills. Things might not have worked out quite so well in a tent at the Reading Festival that year when the attendant crowd heckled endlessly for ‘Gay Bar’ – and only wanted to hear ‘Gay Bar’ – but being a smart cookie, Valentine managed to keep everyone under control while working through really spirited renditions of the album tracks until the restless crowd finally got their wish. A lesser frontman might have allowed things to descend into chaos, but despite half the audience’s indifference beyond the hits, it ended up being a superb show.

‘Fire’, had been so massive that it was always going to be a hard act to follow. and keeping up that kind of high profile was always going to be tough. As far as most of the world at large were concerned, the band disappeared off the face of the Earth at some point after the release of their third LP ‘Switzerland’ in 2006, but Dick and a revolving cast of musicians kept trucking, releasing a string of albums in almost a relentless fashion over the decade and a half that followed.

Unbelievably, ‘Streets of Gold’ is the NINETEENTH Electric Six album (their fifteenth studio release and\third covers project). As with their previous covers albums (2015’s ‘Mimicry’ and 2017’s ‘You’re Welcome’), it presents material drawn from a very wide range of styles and influences, and it doesn’t all work, but the all round chutzpah makes it an interesting prospect.

The band go for high stakes straight off the bat when choosing to open with a version of the INXS classic ‘Don’t Change’. You have to applaud their confidence, but this wasn’t the best idea. The music is approached in a workmanlike way, pretty much as close to the original as they can manage, save for an uglier keyboard part and a compressed drum sound that just highlights the cheapness of the recording. With Dick almost derailing everything with a forced an ugly vocal that sucks all of the tune from the performance in hand, the results are decidedly average. Part of the problem, of course, is that the original is amazing – arguably one of the greatest album closers in history – and nothing would match that. Still, hearing Electric Six mauling ‘Don’t Change’ is far preferable to their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Little Lies’, a recording best described as “disgusting”. As you can imagine, near perfect pop doesn’t translate well to a garage rock/disco hybrid and the fact that the music is heavy on a keyboard sound that comes straight from the land of karaoke disc hell really doesn’t help their cause. Things slide from bad to worse once Valentine opens his mouth and puts in a loud, shouty performance that’s far more befitting of his own ‘Gay Bar’ but certainly not the work of Christine McVie, and by the end of the first chorus, chances are you’ll want to claw off your own ears. This is a drunken singalong at best; it really didn’t need foisting upon an unsuspecting world.

With those two performances present within the first three songs, ‘Streets of Gold’ really gets off to a bad start, but luckily, there’s enough good stuff scattered throughout the rest of the album to make it worthwhile. The opportunity to hear Electric Six hammering through Tin Machine’s ‘Under The God’ with absolute gusto gives the album an easy highlight. The recording is a little rougher and, granted, Johnny Na$hinal is no match for Reeves Gabrels in the guitar stakes, but there’s plenty to like about this rough and ready burst of anger, not least of all the presence of a squirly keyboard juxtaposing the hard edged rock mood with angular, cold synth pop sounds. The hard and fast nature of the song is also very sympathetic to Dick’s rather pointed vocal style in a way that Fleetwood Mac were never going to be, creating the kind of cover that captures the Electric Six drive without trying too hard. A version of Pixies’ ‘Hey’ proves similarly suitable, and by resisting all temptation to change the arrangement, the end result is amazing. Nothing needed to be drastically altered to make it work, and by swapping Frank’s high pitched anxiety for something within Dick’s more aggressive range, it instantly becomes an Electric Six piece. Between a heavy, pulsing bassline and booming vocal it definitely – and defiantly – retains all of the power of the original cut, whilst a straight run through of Alice Cooper’s ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ allows the band to pay tribute to another Detroit legend with some enjoyable results. In taking Glen Buxton’s classic garage rock riff and amping it up slightly, the band ensure the decades old arrangement still has plenty of drive and – pretty much as expected – Valentine’s booming arrogance substitutes well enough for The Coop’s much loved sneer. A similar love for 70s rock shines through a cover of the Kiss anthem ‘Strutter’, allowing Na$hinal ample opportunity to throw out overdriven riffs with absolute glee, and despite Dick never coming close to having the young Paul Stanley’s range (or sense of actual melody) he offers the kind of scenery chewing performance that works despite itself, throwing out odd yelps between huge passages of booming self-confidence.

For those who’ve always loved Electric Six’s funkier side, a take on Talking Heads’ ‘Slippery People’ taps into a decent groove where the best bits seem like an obvious throwback to the classic ‘Fire’ debut, and Valentine’s careening voice is able to latch onto David Byrne’s stranger inflections without ever sounding forced. A couple more of these funky jams might have made the album more interesting overall, but then again, this might not have sounded quite so good if up against too much similar competition. In another curveball, James Ingram & Michael McDonald’s ‘Yah Mo B There’ gets dusted down for a new audience and although never as bad as the Fleetwood cover, it’s light and soulful subtleties aren’t exactly the best match for a band for whom “nuance” seems to have no meaning, but somehow it just about survives despite another cheap-ish sounding musical arrangement. If nothing else, it shows that Valentine does have a resonable voice and more of a range when he really tries, but then again, woudn’t want Electric Six to sound this light and slick very often…despite carrying off a range of styles, they really are at their strongest when chugging through riffs at full pelt. Another interesting pick, Love’s ‘The People Would Be The Times or Between Clark & Hilldale’ recreates the original’s busy Tijuana tinged sounds perfectly with an excellent acoustic guitar part, some wheezing brass and busy percussive rhythm. E6 put there own stamp on it via a more aggressive electric guitar groove, which sounds harder without being intrusive and Dick sounds like he’s relishing every second spent filling the great Arthur Lee’s shoes.

Perhaps more than everything else on this album, ‘Click Your Fingers Applauding The Play’ (originally by Roky Erikson) sounds like a bona fide Electric Six original with its combo of choppy guitars and pseudo disco beats, to the point where – production values aside – you could slot it into the ‘Fire’ or ‘Senor Smoke’ albums and it really wouldn’t feel out of place. It sounds so much like an old E6 number that, in some ways, there’s little more to be said, except that older fans will certainly enjoy this with the volume cranked. In between the surprising and varied choices, you’ll also find something of an old faithful when The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ raises its over familiar head along the way. Beloved of a thousand buskers in the 90s, it has the feel of something that’s indistructible, but as Morrissey proved, it isn’t entirely bomb-proof. Electric Six’s recording is solid without being special; Valentine’s louder vocal gets enough mileage from each syllable and, as a result, the most famous song to feature no rhyming couplets whatsoever might just reach a couple of new ears Stateside. If that’s the case, its inclusion here will have been worth it, but this will never replace the original – or even The Wonder Stuff’s great cover – in your affections.

Pulling off a decent covers album seems easy, but it’s a tricky business to get right. Play everything too straight and you’re accused of phoning in a contractual filler; pick too many obscurities and go the arty route and you risk alienating that part of the audience who expect a covers album to be fun. Despite half of it sounding as it were recorded on a shoestring budget, ‘Streets of Gold’ is one of those covers albums that mostly works. There are a couple of potential car crashes, but the bulk of the material suits the Electric Six hybrid rock-disco-funk mechanics well enough, and in the case of the Love track especially, it shows how they have a knack for taking something completely out of time and making it bristle with life. If you never liked Electric Six before, there might not be anything here to convince you any of this was a good idea, but those willing to go in with an open ear and an open mind will certainly experience a few old favourites in a whole new way, for better or worse.

August 2021