The Vice Rags’ 2017 EP, ‘Hope The Neighbours Are Lookin’’, was a wonderfully raucous affair. Its five songs drew from a few classic styles, taking in some full throttle garage rock (‘Shut Up & Love Me’), overdriven rock ‘n’ roll (‘Out On The Street’), and even massive love for The Replacements (‘One Heart’), each track cutting loose in a superbly trashy style. Their self-penned material showed a lot of spark, but it was a supercharged garage punk rendition of Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’ that suggested that this was a band who’d be able to go all out on their follow up release.
A couple of years came and went without a further word from the band. Eventually, in November 2020, bassist Gay Elvis and guitarist Paul Rosevear (both also members of Readymade Breakup) re-emerged having dug out archive material intended for an even earlier band, The Blakes, before promptly disappearing again. Elvis hadn’t necessarily planned on making new recordings, but the pandemic lockdown(s) clearly gave the musicians a lot of time to reflect and, five years on from their excellent debut, The Vice Rags’ return is everything you’d hope it would be, yet nothing like you’d expect. Occasionally, it’s even better.
The title cut shows off a more mature side to the Rags as they work their way through a 50s inspired rocker where elements of Link Wray’s garage rock lurks beneath a hard surf rock groove. Right from the off, the huge melody and sharp production sound impressive. With the drums dominating and with Elv’s punchy bass cutting through the classic sounding, twangy guitars, it’s very much the kind of thing you’d hope to find propping up a Tarantino soundtrack back in the 90s. This opportunity to hear Readymade Breakup’s vocals layering an old Chris Isaak tune presents a very different band, but it certainly adds a very welcome angle to their arsenal of sounds. Across almost four minutes, there’s a professionalism and unity that wasn’t quite as clear before, and Rosevear’s affected croon is particularly suited to the style in hand. There were a host of revivalists doing this kind of thing in the 90s – including The Blue Hawaiians – and this is every bit as good. The retro angle very much works in the band’s favour.
Moving forward, ‘Voodoo Hoodoo’ brings in a little more of the expected garage rock via a slightly distorted guitar courtesy of Jack Roberts, but everything clings on to the much sharper production, resulting in a slab of good time rock ‘n’ roll that sounds great. The main hook takes its cues from a few old bangers, proving really catchy, but it’s the music that wins out at almost every step. Beneath the clanging guitars, drummer Joe Chyb hammers out a fantastic beat and Elvis drops a massive walking bassline that’s got plenty of muscle. Following a huge, howling lead guitar break, everything takes a moment to indulge in a quieter middle eight where a cool drum shuffle rises and a few slightly bluesier notes emerge. In time honoured tradition, of course, this is just a ruse to make the final chorus sound even bigger, and by the last time you hear the main refrain, chances are, you’ll be set to sing along.
More pre-Beatle influences cut through ‘About Time’, a rock ‘n’ roll love song that sounds as if it’s been borrowed from the Elvis Presley stock and given a kick with some serious Flamin’ Groovies guitar work. The ringing rhythms are lovely, and Jack’s lead work, mixing a little garage rock in with a pinch of bluesy reverb, is particularly on point. The slower pace makes it less immediate, but in terms of melody, it’s huge – the kind of thing that might become an eventual favourite. In another change of mood, ‘Keep Movin’ sounds more like the Vice Rags’ take on 90s roots rock, and this harmony drenched piece showcases not only a great lead vocal from Rosevear but a terrific melodic hook. The guitars shimmer with a real confidence throughout the track’s first half, presenting a pop/rock heart that isn’t always far removed from Readymade Breakup’s earliest work, before careening into something a little more Stones-like, as the Rags give in to their more primal rock influences for a big finish. It doesn’t aim to change the world, but in terms of adding to this already strong selection of tunes, it’s very enjoyable. Last up, ‘Dreaming Again’ takes a little while to warm up due to a slow, sparsely arranged opening where the vocal and guitar arrangement calls back to the 90s. However, when it hits its stride, there’s just as much to enjoy, with a slow and hazy groove set in place that allows Elv to apply some really warm bass, and for Paul to indulge in a fine vocal croon. Again, the influences are retro, but instead of the usual garage and surf rock, the Rags show a solid love of something a little Lennon-esque (but more melodic and less self-obsessed), mixed with one of The Stones’ hazier jams from ‘Goats Head Soup’. Some of the lead guitar work doesn’t sound a million miles away from something Keef and Ron might have dabbled with in the early 70s, but as before, there’s a modern sense of warmth and a vaguely 90s angle that suggests this is where Readymade Breakup might have ended up anyway, had they made a few more albums post 2010. Peaking with a really squirly keyboard solo, the track leaves the listener hanging in a weird dream state as the track fades, but the repeat button calls for another dive into a great release, and subsequent listens show that this material isn’t about to burn out quickly.
Gay Elvis seems to be a musician without any kind of long term plan, but if making music on the hoof – either solo or in collaboration with others – can inspire something this good, then living for the moment is certainly a great idea. It may well have been long overdue, but this second round of tracks from The Vice Rags takes the band forward in great style. Hopefully, those were expecting some hastily knocked out garage rock in keeping with the previous EP will get a pleasant surprise, and those who’ve not been acquainted will find themselves enamoured with this brilliantly retro musical troupe. Highly recommended.
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