Saturday, November 24, 2018

Review of The Good Rats' "Play Dum"

I posted this review a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: The best album from The Good Rats' Marchello-and-sons period.

The Good Rats had two fairly discreet periods to their career. The first was their rise and fall as a burgeoning national band era, which ran from the mid-1970s through 1981. To the extent that they are known and remembered by rock fans in general, it was for their albums released during this period -- including Tasty (1974), Ratcity in Blue (1976), From Rats to Riches (1978) and Birth Comes to Us All (1979) -- and for their corresponding live shows during this decade. This was when the Good Rats performed with -- and often headlined over -- bands such as KISS, Rush, Aerosmith and Journey, all the while playing in some of the larger arenas in the US. 

Beginning in the mid-1990s, though, The Good Rats re-formed and reinvented themselves as something of a family business, with singer/songwriter Peppi Marchello fronting a new version of the band that featured his now-grown sons Gene and Stefan (and often found his middle-son Spencer selling merch) in shows at clubs throughout the New York Tri-state area. The Rats released a number of albums independently during this period of their existence, the best of which, arguably, was Play Dum.

Play Dum is hard to classify. It contains re-recorded versions of several songs first recorded by earlier incarnations of the band, including "Beethoven", "Joey Ferrari", "Mr. Mechanic", and "Mean Mother"; a few songs originally released on their 1996 Tasty Seconds album ("Thunder Rocks My Soul", "She's Stayin' Home Tonight" and "Football Madness"); and some songs that had first been placed on a very limited release (mostly to radio stations) LP called Let's Have Another Beer (2000). The album is also something of an anomaly, in that it was originally put out under the band name "Dum", in an experiment to see if they could attract a younger crowd by dispensing with the "Good Rats" moniker. 

For Good Rats fans, and rock fans in general, there's a lot to love about Play Dum, whether you consider it to be more of a studio release or a compilation album. Specifically, there is a troika of songs that are absolutely among the best tracks the Rats ever recorded, and a second-tier of very good songs just a level or so below these.

The aforementioned trio of honor includes "Ashes to Ashes", "World Party Anthem" and "The Springer Singalong". Think of the classic hard rock groups of the 1970s -- bands like Rush, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Mountain and even Led Zeppelin. "Ashes to Ashes" is a rock anthem in the same league as many of these bands' top works. It's a song about the cycle of life, and in typical Good Rats fashion, it's sung from the point of view of those of us who strive every day, but always feel we're somehow playing a losing game: "You play the wheel/You lose on black, so you switch to the red/Your horse was good/But he breaks down the stretch." It's a hard driving, dramatic track that features some of Gene Marchello's best guitar work.

The other two top songs on Play Dum are both of a more comedic nature. "World Party Anthem" (also sometimes known as "Let's Have Another Beer") is a mid-tempo number that advocates for massive alcohol consumption as the only real balm for life's many indignities. "Close their eyes and in a flash/Bills and wives have all their cash/And their sons are lazy boors/And their daughters all are whores". It shares a lot thematically with Jethro Tull's "Too Old to Rock 'N Roll: Too Young to Die", and maybe with the TV show Married With Children, except that this is more the drunkard's version of each. The other novelty number, "The Springer Singalong" has some fun with the Jerry Springer show, and other daytime television programs of the same ilk. It captures the essence of the kind of human train wrecks who populate these programs and make us all feel better about our own lives: "You sleep with your wife/You sleep with your dog/You sleep with your sisters, your cousins, and brothers-in-law/You're just a loser with no shame/Who needs his fifteen minutes of fame/Your time is now, you got the call!"

The second-tier numbers include several more good ones, including "Elbo", which pokes fun at some of the old blues singers who are much-revered in certain circles, in spite of the indifference of the public at large, and "6000 Days" which pays tribute to a young woman who passed away much too young. (I thought at first it was about Joan of Arc, but the lyrics make reference to her lovers and passions of the flesh, so I guess not.) It's also nice to have newly recorded versions of tracks such as "Beethoven", which had only previously been released in a live version, and "Joey Ferrari", which was one of the only worthwhile tracks on The Good Rats' primitive self-titled debut album in 1969. 

There are some misses here as well -- "Football Madness" was really nothing but an attempt by Marchello to try to market his way into a deal with the NFL -- and all told, I prefer the original versions of "Mr. Mechanic" and "Mean Mother" -- but this is nitpicking. In general, Play Dum is a very strong album. If you're a fan of the classic version of The Good Rats, you'll want to give this a listen. And if you're a devotee of 1970s-style hard rock who somehow wasn't previously familiar with The Good Rats, while I'd suggest that you start by listening to some of their classic albums like Tasty and From Rats to Riches, you're probably going to enjoy Play Dum as well.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars