The Dirtbombs have always liked playing covers. (In 2001, they did a whole album of them: Ultraglide in Black was a lovingly rowdy set of soul and funk tunes, done over in fuzzy garage-rock style.) And the band’s from Detroit, so it’s no surprise that they’d have affection for another of the genres their city built and nurtured techno. But somehow I’d never have expected them to do a whole album of classic techno covers. Or to sound so charming doing it.
Here we are, though: Portions of the new Dirtbombs album, Party Store, slam one Detroit staple up against another, and make the idea of a garage band playing heady techno seem like no big deal. I suspect that’s because, unlike a lot of acts who’ve tried to mediate between rock instruments and dance music, the Dirtbombs avoid all fussiness and just embrace their own primitivism. It’s as if they know they can’t compete with the subtlety, grace, or smoothness of these classic birth-of-techno cuts from people like Derrick May and Juan Atkins — so they jump on the broad outlines and hustle hard. They sound like they’re making sweaty, human grabs at some cosmic thing they can’t reach. (That’s what makes the title so perfect: “Party store” is just the optimistic Michigan term for that cruddy place on the corner where you’d buy a six-pack and a bag of chips.)
The good stuff comes mostly at the album’s start, where the tracks being covered are more straightforwardly funky. (And where they have vocals; that helps.) Cybotron’s “Cosmic Cars” turns into a big evil blurt that’s more like a Misfits song. “Sharevari,” a 1981 track sometimes considered the first Detroit techno record, remains a wonderfully rigid strut. It’s only when the band moves on into more abstract, textural tracks — including a twenty-minute freakout on “Bug in the Bass Bin” — that this becomes what you’re probably afraid of: mostly of interest to music geeks.
Meanwhile, in New York, Hercules & Love Affair seem headed in the opposite direction: making a golden era of dance music less sweaty, more precise, more elaborate. Dance music done over like the lobby of a grand hotel, with heavy curtains and velvet and much gilding. There were shades of the same impulse on their much-loved, self-titled debut, though that one had a secret weapon; its uptempo neo-disco featured a few guest vocals from Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), whose emotional quaver rubbed up against dance music in a shockingly perfect way. This follow-up, Blue Songs, doesn’t quite put off sparks like that. It’s nostalgic for classic house, but it’s smoothed out, ornate, and comfy in a way that might strike some listeners as flat.
The group’s leader, producer Andy Butler, has a profound and slightly sentimental love for house: In interviews, he talks about its elegance, sophistication, and gushing emotion. Blue Songs even ends with a cover of Sterling Void’s “It’s All Right,” the kind of aggressively uplifting tune that name-checks world conflicts and oppression before promising that music will always, always be your salvation. Thing is, the group’s cover turns the song into a slow, churchy elegy, with little of the first-order joy that made the original convincing. There are parts of Blue Songs that work beautifully for a house-inspired pop album — the single, “My House,” is definitely one of them — and there are stretches of baroque, downtempo pop that are just plain gorgeous listening. But the album as a whole feels a little more like a wistful memory than a proposition in itself.
I don’t know if that’s such a terrible thing; the record’s good at being wistful and sophisticated, and it carries plenty of honest emotion. And I keep suspecting there’s a purpose to it — a love letter to true-blue classic-house veterans? — that’s just not coming through to everyone else.