Good concept albums don’t come along too often, but when they do they have a way of slipping out of the space-time continuum to remain relatively ageless. If you can’t think of any from the past 10 years, it’s because no one seems to be tackling projects with the skaldic ambitions of Tommy or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or 2112 these days. There’s at least one obvious reason for this: Contemporary bands working at the level of financial, popular and critical success that the Who and the Beatles and Rush once enjoyed are much more savvy to the possibilities of video. MTV is the perfect forum for a band to indulge its conceptual pretensions in short, easy bursts instead of writing an entire album around them.
San Francisco’s Drunk Horse don’t quite go the whole hog on their new release for the Bay Area label Man’s Ruin, Tanning Salon/Biblical Proportions, opting for a divided force over a massed frontal assault. Instead of erecting a single conceptual obelisk, the CD actually delivers two mini concept albums, both thankfully centered around suitably gigantic themes: the emptiness and superficiality of living in a thoroughly commodified society (Tanning Salon) and, ahem, the Bible (Biblical Proportions).
Of the two, Tanning Salon is the more forthcoming: full-on Skynyrdian twin guitar attack, pulsing synths, and dryly funny topical lyrics delivered just a notch above the increasingly familiar stoner-rock union minimum best demonstrated by Fu Manchu’s Scott Hill and Nebula’s Eddie Glass. Biblical Proportions is equally satisfying, but with more of the trappings we typically associate with overly ambitious recording sessions running way past time and way over budget: strings, gongs, and so on. None of them employed to the bloated and burdensome “I’ve always wanted to record some of my songs with the London Philharmonic” point where many a British prog band of yore would just be getting started, though; in fact, you get the feeling that with the underused presence of strings and the like, Drunk Horse are making a slyly self-deprecating jab at themselves.
But for whatever conceptual urgency there is to either mini-album, Drunk Horse have got something firmly in mind that has escaped composers of middling concept albums in the past: You’ve got to rock to make it work. Tanning Salon/Biblical Proportions gets a little arty in places—though hardly a patch on YES or ELP—yet Drunk Horse still go beyond the call of duty in satisfying our temporal need to be rocked but good. What future generations bring away from the whole thing is, frankly, their concern.
Drunk Horse plays Jay’s Upstairs on Sunday, May 20 with The Fucking Champs, The International Playboys, and One Point Plan. 10 p.m. Cover TBA.