The Paybacks are the kind of great, B.S.-free bar band you'd love to stumble across on a random Saturday night: Their boozy rumble never bogs down into a ballad; the rhythm section sounds like they know their way around the R&B section of a record store; the guitarist packs an arsenal of cheap-and-ready riffs but isn't afraid to break out a shit-hot solo; and the gravel-voiced singer isn't afraid to shout "Shit hot!" when he does. On Harder and Harder, Detroit's Paybacks seize this sound with such knowing glee that you want to kick up the volume and strap speakers to the ears of anyone who paid money for that Jet album.
But all that isn't why Harder and Harder is one of the best guitar-rock albums I've heard this year. Bar-band rock might be the most durable music on the planet, which means there are lots of bands with a command of that sound. It's great to spend a night swilling down beers too, but unless you're a genre partisan, most of the music doesn't pack as much of a punch in the comfort of your living room after the hangover has subsided.
So what's special about the Paybacks' Harder and Harder isn't that it's a boozy good-time garage-metal record. It's that it's a boozy, good-time garage-metal record with a compelling and distinct personality. The worldview that drives this record seems informed by more than bar culture, kitsch movies, and, well, other records. Meet Wendy Case, who looks kind of like Thurston Moore but who badly wants to be your Joan Jett.
I probably listened to Harder and Harder --the band's second album after 2002's much-lauded Knock Loud -- a half-dozen times before I looked at the liner notes closely enough to realize that the singer was a woman. Case's raspy snarl falls somewhere between Jett and Axl Rose on the continuum of androgynous rock voices, and somehow she manages to turn about every third song into a miniature "Sweet Child O Mine." (From the soaring "Bright Side": "But then on the bright side/It's gonna be a long ride/And I've got nothing to do but/Think about you.")
Does gender matter? You bet it does. It helps give Case's songs an honest vulnerability that her genre's penchant for masculine swagger might otherwise keep in check. It helps her sing the praises of sex and intimacy with equal dedication. When she promises, "I'll be home and it won't be long/We'll make out with the lights on," it seems less cocky than sweet and sexy.
And when she barks, "I worked twice as hard to get half this far" on the blues "Jumpy," you'd better believe gender isn't a non-issue.
Case's status as a woman in a man's man's man's world also has an effect on the album's one moment of greatness: I dote on "Lazy Things" like I would a stray puppy washed up on the front porch, just like Case dotes on those shiftless boys she went to school with who were "too damned lazy to be cruel."
"How I wish that I could know them now/Tell them that I love them/Tell them why and tell them how," she sings. And it seems like she's making up for lost time by making great music with her all-male bandmates, because the shiftless, arty guys in her subculture could well be the same directionless kids with whom she grew up. n
The Paybacks play the Hi-Tone Café Sunday, August 22nd.