The real conundrum for a hands-free rock ‘n’ roll frontman—no instrument to play, no ax to strum haplessly, no tambourine to bang impotently—is what to do with yourself during the guitar solos. It is an awkward time. Briefly (or not briefly, depending on the genre), you have no purpose. Dancing is ill-advised. Some brave individuals choose to leap about, hype up the crowd, headbang, or repeatedly jab an enthusiastic finger at the soloing individual. Most, however, retreat to the drum riser and emphatically drink water. Probably wise.
As with other aspects of his craft, Dick Valentine, enigmatic ringleader of Electric Six, seizes on this situation as a chance to experiment. From the onset of the schlocky Detroit disco-metal band’s free show Thursday night at Southpaw, he employs several methods to fill those instrumental moments when he finds himself extraneous.
“Synthesizer”: Jams hands in pockets, smiles devilishly, stands completely still.
“White Train”: Holds microphone up to bandmate’s guitar, bellows “Solo!” several times.
“Rock & Roll Evacuation”: Turns back to crowd, holds mic high in one hand, mic stand high in the other.
“Danger! High Voltage”: Pounds fists against the wall as though in great psychological tumult. (Also announces “Exceptional drumming!” after drum solo.)
“Feed My Fuckin’ Habit”: Push-ups and sit-ups, roughly 15 apiece.
“Gay Bar”: Sits down, claps.
“Gay Bar” was most likely your first—and perhaps only—exposure to the band. Over a blunt, lascivious guitar riff (Electric Six being essentially the MC5 with an additional chromosome, signaling not so much evolution as Down syndrome), Dick bellows, “You! I wanna take you to a gay bar! I wanna take you to a gay bar! I wanna take you to a gay bar! Gay bar! Gay bar!” Charming. Most likely your first exposure to “Gay Bar” was as a rathergood.com animation, in which the song is performed by crudely animated Viking kittens. This was a phenomenon very much of its time, that time being 2003, the first flowering of New York’s dance-punk dalliance (the Rapture, etc.), an era viciously and delightfully skewered from within by “Improper Dancing,” the anthemically goofy zenith of E6’s debut, Fire. It may shock you to learn that this band has since released three more albums.
What makes their longevity shocking, you see, is that Electric Six are possibly the least sincere rock band of the past decade. Their sound is pure ham-fisted, armadillo-trousered cheese—salacious, sarcastic, utterly sardonic. At least Kiss had “Beth.” This is top-shelf satire, though what they’re satirizing is themselves, in real time: Ha ha, we’re rhyming “nuclear war” with “dance floor,” ha ha. A colleague and I recently debated over what would be the worst possible concert at which to propose—what rock band would portend the worst for the longevity of your marriage. Electric Six. No question. Worse than Korn. There is no more dishonest foundation on which to build an ostensibly loving relationship. They might as well have mounted giant quotation marks on either side of Southpaw’s stage. But Dick keeps at it, thundering bewildering Zen koans that tread the razor’s edge betwixt the insightful and the inane:
If you live in Japan, you’re Japanese
If you live in Canada, you’re gonna freeze
If you live in a plastic house, you’ll never die in a fire
If you work in television, you’re a fuckin’ liar
Dick Valentine delivers these words as though they’re scripture, in the same carnival-barker howl with which he voices even cruder sentiments. (“Fire in the disco! Fire in the Taco Bell!”) If he’s not the greatest frontman in rock, he is among the most fascinating, not least because he sounds absolutely nothing like he looks. We are talking Rick Astley levels of audio/visual dissonance. Based on the records (the new I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master is excellent, though 2005’s Señor Smoke is probably their best), I had him pegged at around seven feet tall, rail-thin, with jet-black hair and pointy beard. A figure terrifying to behold, a Dante for the LCD Soundsystem age. Like a professional wrestler, or Dave Wyndorf, or one of the dudes in Turbonegro. Instead, at Southpaw, Dick turns out to be an average-looking guy, average height, average build, with shaggy hair, semi-formal business attire, and a squinty-eyed smirk to offset his more raucous dance moves, vacillating wildly from Christian Slater to Jack Black and back again. He unveils some awkward choreography for “Improper Dancing,” and shakes his fist imperiously during crowd favorite “Naked Pictures (Of Your Mother).” Charming.
Dick’s stage banter ranges from jokes disguised as eulogies (“I’m sorry to tell you that Larry King is dead”) to soul-baring laments disguised as jokes (“We’ve been around the world in the last two months: We’ve made $24,000”). The tunes themselves are wickedly funny and brutally catchy, even without keyboardist Tait Nucleus, who is unable to attend the Southpaw show (Dick intimates that he might be in prison) and thus provide the video-arcade synthesizer bloops that make I Shall Exterminate etc. a particular delight. (“When I Get to the Green Building” has a woozy, swooning power-ballad lilt to it, very “Moving in Stereo.”) The riffs remain, though: crass, propulsive darts of pleasure that elevate what could be a gimmicky joke-rock debacle into something almost profound. The highlight is “Rock & Roll Evacuation,” a cynical denouncement of our “evil [pronounced eeeeeve-illllll] generation” that somehow climaxes with biting anti-war rhetoric:
Mr. President make a little money sending people you don’t know to Iraq
Mr. President, I don’t like you: You don’t know how to rock!
Dick introduces this song, originally released in 2005, by noting that it has utterly failed, in that Mr. President has not been compelled to resign in disgrace. “This next song is not working!” he snarls. “It has no effect! But we’ve sold a lot of T-shirts!” Buy another. Bands this funny that can rock you this hard should be treasured. At Southpaw, we are appropriately rapt, hypnotized even, showing our appreciation the only way we can think of: repeatedly jabbing our fingers at the soloing individual.