Mining the past

By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  February 12, 2008

Mars Volta lyricist/singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/composer Omar Rodríguez-López and Louis XIV founder/guitarist Jason Hill were barely in elementary school when Marley and the original Led Zeppelin closed shop. But Hendrix, T Rex, the MC5, Coltrane, and even ELO (whose “Telephone Line” is echoed in the old school ringtones in Louis XIV’s “Stalker”) are better references for their new albums. Although the Mars Volta and Louis XIV are both California-born bands with international profiles, they’re on different quests. Louis XIV are looking for a hit; the Mars Volta are searching for nirvana. Both are credible causes.

Slick Dogs and Ponies follows Louis XIV’s chest-thumping 2005 debut, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, and one EP without compromising Hill’s backwards viewpoint. The title track, with its piano and strings geared to an urgent cello-driven beat, nods to the Beatles and to ELO, who also nodded to the Beatles. Hill’s vocal style still smacks of the breathy way glam-rock pioneer Marc Bolan put sex in T Rex, so his faithful cover of Rex’s “Ride a White Swan” is no surprise. But the frippery of strings and piano along with more introspective writing makes this a gentler, less memorable album.

There was a lot of carping about sexist lyrics on The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, and Hill is an avowed horn dog, but that’s also part of the rock tradition. Take it, leave it, or be offended by it. The trouble with Slick Dogs and Ponies is that it’s inoffensive. And if the most elegant thing Hill can deliver is the bare-boned voice-and-violins version of Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer,” he’d best roll up his sleeves, buy a pack of condoms, and head back to the pubs.

The Mars Volta have created a byzantine rock riddle. Bixler-Zavala ignores syntax and sings like System of a Down’s Serge Tankian crossed with Minnie Mouse, so figuring out Bedlam in Goliath’s story is a challenge. Reading the lyrics doesn’t help much. But damned if he doesn’t sound fascinating as he spins a thorny yarn that involves many corpses and corruption of the soul.

Musical director Rodríguez-López has created a complex and shifting setting for Bixler-Zavala’s drama. To borrow an image from Hendrix: his music is a sonic sand castle, with walls that suddenly crumble, reconfigure, or dissolve. As the dozen songs — some reaching 10 minutes — unfurl, drums disappear or roar or trade their pulse for a drone, guitar riffs provided by Rodríguez-López and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante build until they soar off screaming like frightened ravens. And when the saxes come in, the comparison with Coltrane’s sonic whirlpools is unavoidable.

Since their second and most accessible album, 2005’s Frances the Mute (Universal), it seems the Mars Volta simply haven’t given a damn about anything except making the music they hear and feel. If you want to listen, fine. Otherwise, piss off. That integrity coupled with their free-jazz obsessions makes them genetic kin to seminal Detroit noisemakers the MC5, albeit without the overt politics. But defying convention has always been political. Dial up Hendrix and the MC5 on your iPod. You’ll see.

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