With the glut of so many rock and roll bands on the market it's easy to forget how good the music can sound in the hands of the right people. After years of listening to so many attempting variations on basically the same theme it all begins to sound the same after a while. For all the lack of variety it might as well be one band playing the same set over and over again with periodic line up changes. All of which makes it all the more amazing when a band is able to distinguish itself from the hoards of others playing what they think is rock and roll.
Back in 1973 when the New York Dolls first swaggered into prominence it was because they had attitude to go with great musical chops. Before CBGBs had even opened its doors, The Dolls were playing the gritty, edgy music that's come to be associated with New York City punk bands like the Ramones. They might have been wearing their girl friends' lipstick and halter-tops on stage, but they played rock and roll that sounded like it could take on all comers with one hand tied behind its back. Unfortunately they didn't last very long and the original band fell apart in 1975.
When the only two survivors of the original Dolls line up, lead singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, reformed the group in 2004 it had to be wondered whether they would be able to recapture any of what they had thirty years prior. With the release of 2006's One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This and last year's Live At The Filmore East proving they could still kick anybody's ass when it came to rock and roll, they've now prepared their second studio assault on the masses. Rhino Records in the UK May 4th/09 and in the US May 5th/09, shows that not only haven't they lost their touch, but compared to what these guys have to offer, most other bands are just going through the motions.
Right from the opening defiant chords of the tittle track "Cause I Sez So" to the final chord's echo fades away twelve cuts latter this is as definitive a rock and roll album as I've heard in years. Not only can they still rock the socks off everybody with delusions of being punks in the year 2009, they can reach back into the depths of time to the roots of the music with equal ease. While one song might be redolent of the blues from the deep south, another will remind you that rock and roll owes as much as debt to the Ozarks as it does the Mississippi Delta. They don't forget the more modern influences either as track five, "My World", evokes memories of early British blues bands like Eric Burden and the Animals.
Rock and roll is the bastard child of any number of musical styles, and the Dolls embrace all those elements when they create their music. You can't be afraid that one of your songs might sound like somebody else did thirty or forty years ago when playing this type of music or you'll never play again. What you need is the force of personality and the character to put your own stamp on what you've created. That's what makes it your song, that's what makes it different from everybody else, and that's what makes the New York Dolls so damn special. They might play a song that sounds like early Rolling Stones or the Animals, but no one would ever mistake it for anything but a New York Dolls track.
Whether it's the reggae influenced version of "Trash", the funky "Nobody Got No Bizness", or "Temptation To Exist" which could easily fit into the soundtrack of a spaghetti western, each song on Cause I Sez So is distinguished by the edge that marks a Dolls song. Whether it's Johansen's unique vocal stylings, the bite of Sylvain's guitar at key moments in a song, or the hint of the street running beneath the music, there's always been something that's made the Dolls unique, and this disc is no different. Slightly decadent, sharp as the edge of a switchblade reflecting a street light on a dark city night, but with the soul of a lover who is always looking to catch a glimpse of the moon as it rises above the skyscrapers, the New York Dolls have always understood the dichotomy of rock and roll's need for toughness to be balanced by the heart of a romantic. So even their hardest song has something emotionally real at its centre, while their introspective tunes never succumb to self-indulgent sentiment.
I have to admit that I had some hesitations about this disc when I heard that it was being produced by Todd Rundgren. I might be in a minority, but I've never really been a fan of either Rundgren's music or the music he's produced. Anything of his that I've heard to date has always sounded either overblown or over produced to my ears. This has usually resulted in a band's sound becoming lost behind whatever effects Rundgren has superimposed over the music. However I needn't have worried as that's not the case with Cause I Sez So.
Perhaps because Rundgren produced their first album way back when and helped develop the Doll's sound in the first place he knew just what was required this time out. Whatever the reason, everything worked out for the best, as you can barely feel the hand of the producer on any of the tracks. Even when you do, like with the inclusion of rain sound effects on the eighth track, "Making Rain", it's always appropriate and shows great sensitivity for, and appreciation of, the material.
I've always wondered why people bother to listen to bands who play only pale imitations of what rock and roll is capable of being, especially when there are groups like the New York Dolls they could be listening to instead. Cause I Sez So proves once again there's no one quite like the New York Dolls and that they understand rock and roll music like few other bands have before or since. Do yourself a favour and come home to rock and roll as it should be played and pick up a copy of this disc, by one of the few bands who have ever really mattered.
(Originally posted May 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.