The veteran super-rockers renew their self-made sound through overripe sarcasm
The Fleshtones have been around for quite some time now. Nearing their fifth decade from their debut at CBGB, this is their 23rd full-length LP and they aren’t letting up. One might think that if the band itself is grudging into the final stage of its life expectancy, then its members must be moribund. But one would be surprisingly mistaken. Even as senior citizenship is on the horizon, they bring their uncopiable, retrophilic “super-rock” in their latest, Face of the Screaming Werewolf. But now it seems the signature sound reflects its age, for better or worse.
It opens with the lupine title track, leaving no buildup to the main feature. They channel B-grade horror into pantomimed lyrics and outlaw twang in this tale of a romance gone spookily awry. His date, who had been withdrawn and hiding her face the whole night, decloaks her hoodie to reveal, you guessed it, a face of a screaming werewolf. Terrified, he books it. Finally alone, he looks into the mirror not to see his own but the face of a screaming werewolf. The song is absolutely bonkers. Tremolo chords and a wrangling fuzzed-out solo respond to the shock. It’s fulsomely evocative of The Cramps, which isn’t too unfathomable considering they shared the same rehearsal space as the madcap inventors of psychobilly.
With the exception of a couple tracks, the whole record is in that succinct rockabilly-gone-punk instrumentation under a goofy drawl and even goofier lyrics. The last track figured the album’s mocking tone but lead singer, Peter Zaremba, takes it a step further. “Alex Trebek” lampoons Jeopardy’s bespectacled teddy-bear host. With his tongue deep into the recess of his cheek, Zaremba sings him into absurdity. “Alex Trebek is waiting for you” with “categories for you to choose,” seemingly overjoyed as the affable aura of the gameshow host renders on the television screen.
Their sneering continues to go unchecked in “Manpower Debut.” Going after something touchier than Alex Trebek, it’s masculinity’s turn to be rotten-tomatoed. Punchy power chords assert in machismo minimalism as the ultimate he-man dickishly demands extra cheese on his pizza–a shrugged symptom of his toxic masculinity–or pugnaciously screams about how he has enough manpower to go around for everyone like a drunken cynosure until the song darkens with him. Zaremba even slights a mammoth newspaper in the rollicking “The Show is Over.” “I had my doubts about you, but as the New York Times likes to say,” Zaremba sings before sliding into the choral refrain, “move along, move along/ the show is over” between harmonica yelps and dumb singalong camaraderie all tucked into a blues rhythm on speed.
Like all latter-day The Fleshtones records, those bygone rock’n’roll tropes are ever-present. “Swinging Planet X” is centered on a thinly-veiled rip-off of a famed Bo Diddley hit, sidestepping the copyright infringement by the inclusion of Western electric guitar riffage. Then it jumps from the ‘50s to the ‘60s in “Spilling Blood (At the Rock N’ Roll Show)” and “Child of the Moon” both of which indulge in stock maneuvers from the era, the second a cover of The Stones.
On the whole, Face of the Screaming Werewolf is a parody album. It laughingly chews up characters made-up and real and lunges at topical hot-button issues if not deliberately settling for timeworn love themes. The Fleshtones aren’t taking themselves seriously in their self-appointed “super-rock” style. They may have had enough of their own invention, and because they’ve used it all up, they squeeze it until its innards come out. The final track, “Somerset Morning,” a loony instrumental, lackadaisically ushers the end as the band smirks at what they’ve come up with this time but without a clue for what’s next.