When the Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright left Toronto band the Deadly Snakes, the boys decided against replacing him on the guitar. Lesser groups may have sunk to the bottom of the sea without such a strong mentor, musician, underground legend and collaborator to keep them afloat, but with two post-Cartwright albums in the can, the Snakes have not only adapted, they've gotten better.
As anyone who has seen him perform live can attest, Greg Cartwright (sometimes known as "Greg Oblivion" from The Oblivions), vibrates with electricity. He channeled that energy into the Deadly Snakes when producing their first LP, Love Undone, by drawing a garage band with literary pretensions towards the energy of full-tilt screaming R&B. By the Snakes' second album, I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore, Cartwright had officially joined the band as a guitarist who occasionally wrote and sang. The results were impressive-while "Graveyard Shake," "Pirate Cowboy" and "Trigger" were definitive stand-out Deadly Snakes material, the Cartwright-penned songs ("West Texas Sound" and "Rock Candy") left the rest of the tracks in the backseat.
Because of the opposing dynamics at work-the Snakes' tool shed blending of murder ballads and sea shanties versus Cartwright's injection of world-weary garage rock and humor- I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore is a relentless onslaught of guitars, horns and bleeding vocal chords. And it proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album: the formula was too unstable to be reproduced, the production was as tight as a drumhead, Cartwright sounded like a man who had finally found his voice, and the Snakes sounded like men setting sail to find themselves.
But then Cartwright left, taking with him a sound that he's still now perfecting with the Reigning Sound-melodic hooks wrapped around soul-and the Snakes, in choosing not to replace their erstwhile producer and collaborator, were left to see what they could do without his signature guitar. Ode to Joy, the Deadly Snakes' third album, found the band stripped down to their bare essentials with only their wits to guide them. If Ode to Joy were a table, it would have had a stack of napkins propping up one of its legs during production, but that's not necessarily a bad thing-it's what they're serving for dinner that matters. And this meal (particularly the songs "Closed Casket" and "There Goes Your Corpse Again") is a straight-up killer. The sound that the Deadly Snakes created on Ode to Joy is an extension of what they had achieved on their debut LP, Love Undone-something that is all theirs. They'd completed their apprenticeship, were ready to go it alone, and by 2005's Porcella, the Snakes no longer needed to set a place for Mr. Cartwright at the table.
With Andre Ethier and Age of Danger switching vocal duties here and there, Porcella is a moody affair with lyrics that could have been cribbed from a nineteenth-century folktale. Being a carnivore, the album makes me hungry-and for an album with a grotesque pig head on the cover (also featured on a coffee table in the band photo) that's saying something.
It's also a little pretentious. I can forgive pretension because it's one of the pillars of rock 'n' roll-along with obsession, sexual frustration and abandon. A song like the Snakes' "So Young + So Cruel" does it for me. One-minute-and-thirty-seconds into it, the band takes what could be a flat, hoity-toity piece of indie-rock junk, and gets dirty with it. Porcella is an album to listen to when you want to pour yourself a nice glass of wine, look out the window at the snow coming down and fill yourself up on freshly roasted duck. Indulge yourself. It's better than Christmas dinner because at least Porcella won't make you chitchat with your grandma's new "special friend" and you can sing "Let It Go" instead of saying grace.
Porcella was produced to sound as though you're sitting in another room while the Deadly Snakes are playing-that the music is traveling right through the walls-and once a stray melody catches your ear, everything else you're doing will just stop. In "Gore Veil," Age of Danger-in dire need of a cough drop-warbles, "I've been lost all my life, now I found what's meant for me, on the edge of a knife is a contemplicity." Those aren't the words of a man brimming over with excitement, but he's got some life in him. These guys are working for it. It's an album that will make you stop and think-but it won't force you to.
Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind his sofa. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.