Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rematch: The Von Bondies step back into the ring and hit harder than Mickey Rourke.

Wrestling and rock 'n' roll are simply genres in the canon of pop culture. Nostalgia welcomes resurgences of repeated history.

by Thomas Matich

Can we leave it all to chance? If we take big risks and fail, do we deserve another shot? Everyone seems to love an underdog, a people’s champ to root for; even when they might be sabotaging themselves. Or, maybe they just got a raw deal from the start?

Mickey Rourke was never a pretty boy. But he had a Bruce Willis tough guy attractiveness to him in the good old days when he made 9 ½ Weeks. After I watched The Wrestler, I was shocked that Rourke looked like Randy “The Ram” Robinson ⎯a strange crossbreed of Axel Rose and The Ultimate Warrior ⎯ in real life. “It must’ve been a good make-up artist,” I thought while watching the film. Oh, no, it’s not. More like the train wreck of plastic surgery gone wrong (a Google image search of Rourke brings up a split-shot comparison to Nick Nolte’s infamous wildman mug shot).

The Wrestler is gripping and gritty, to the cocaine line “The Ram” sniffs off a bathroom counter in a bar before banging some broad over the sink. During his heart attack in the locker room after a staple gun infused brawl, you grasp your own chest in pain.

Although he's shredded some rough riffs and looks good in black shades, Jason Stollsteimer never struck me as a tough guy. But on The Von Bondie’s new album, Love, Hate, And Then There’s You, Stollsteimer plants a brass-knuckled uppercut to the naysayers that knocks ‘em over the ropes. He plays the role of rugged rock star just as well as Rourke embodies a legendary pro wrestler. The album opens with the clamoring, kinetic drums of Don Blum, as if they turbo charged the clanking glass bottles from The Warrior.

It’s brow raising, The Von Bondies want your attention and they don’t let go of it until the end. “This Is Our Perfect Crime” centers on the sparks from the underground, as if The Von Bondies are reignited as underdogs. They hope to be as spiked and tough as the barbwire “The Ram” pummels his opponents into.

“Perfect Crime” excites as it bursts with Red Bull powered riffs as Stollsteimer carries his notes with enough chiseled grit that transform him into an urban cowboy, twirling his six-shooter as he walks from out the saloon at high noon, ready to meet his maker. If The Strokes were performing inside of a dream sequence from A Nightmare on Elm Street, it would be this riveting jam. As an ambassador of the alternative, Stollsteimer exclaims: “We are the spark, we are the great/ we keep our cities loud and proud/ we keep their ears glued to the streets/ we are the underground.” It’s the first of many theme songs that are packed into Love, Hate as Stollsteimer embodies the soul of a man down for the count and about to be pinned when suddenly his arm raises up and begins to shake in the spirit of Hulk Hogan.

A clear step-up from previous works such as Pawn Shoppe Heart, Stollsteimer’s voice has never sounded better. He’s putting his pipes to work, adjusting on each track. His vocals are clear, tough, soaring and dripping with machismo. On “Only To Haunt You,” he woos and ohs along this alt-country meets '90s Brit-rock ditty that rightfully found itself included on the soundtrack to the Lost Boys sequel.

While Stollsteimer sounds tough, he’s not Mickey Rourke-tough. If I were to compare him to a pro wrestler, it would be Shawn Michaels, the Heartbreak Kid ⎯with much better hair of course. Both are pretty boy chatterboxes with finesse and they can land a pretty mean kick in the face (write a great rock song). Michaels was an especially great trash talker and in his glory days he was landing flying body slams off the tops of ladders. Stollsteimer's hooks soar just as high and his interviews are intense.

The last time the Von Bondies were in the spotlight, they crafted the killer hit “C’mon C’mon” with a signature opening riff more potent than Brett Hart’s sharpshooter. A tune so genius that it found an everlasting life as the theme song to the Denis Leary FX drama Rescue Me. But the band’s triumphs were often unjustly overshadowed by a pay-per-view like clash of the titans – the Jack White sucker punch heard around the world. One emcee once rhymed that “rap is like wrestling,” and rock ‘n’ roll often doesn’t fall far from that tree either.

In The Wrestler, Randy is set to square off in a rematch of his great bout with The Ayatollah on the 20th Anniversary of the legendary fight. But, "The Ram" suffers a heart attack after a no holds barred, barb wire, table and chairs brawl and is forced to reevaluate his life. He attempts to make amends with his estranged daughter, tries his hand at working the deli at a grocery store and looks to sweep a stripper with a heart of gold off her feet. He fails miserably and then decides to fight the Ayatollah anyway, because the ring is all he’s got.

After parting ways with the major label, Sire, The Von Bondies have reemerged with a different line-up and a record deal with the independent Majordomo. When I interviewed Stollsteimer last summer in his hometown of Plymouth, we made a short pit stop to his apartment complex. Although it’s nowhere near a trailer park like The Ram's home, it’s neither a sprawling rock star mansion either. As "The Ram" climbs back in the ring to do the only thing he knows, the Von Bondies pick up their instruments.

With “Shut Your Mouth,” Stollsteimer sets the tone of this comeback, rumbling like Randy Savage: “go to sleep little baby/ and shut yer mouth… can you say a good word about us, can you say a good thing, a good thing?” The song is a bottle rocket of pent-up aggression, with gasoline growling guitars thundering in the hurricane ravaged background, with Stollsteimer pimp-slapping all those haters, like when Ric Flair use to smack his opponents square on the chest so hard you could feel the sting from your television screen. As an eye-popping second song, it really should be the follow-up single to “Pale Bride.” People can relate to adversity.

Although I’d suspect that Stollsteimer would argue that many of these songs might have to do with his ex-wife and that marriage, I can’t help but think that the spouse personifies the band’s relationship with the music industry and Detroit’s rock scene. Even more blunt is “She’s Dead To Me,” a 90 second firecracker that opens with Stollsteimer shrieking “you been talking all this shiiiiiiit/ you been talking all this shiiiiit/ I think it’s time for you to quit!” It’s like pouring more kerosene on a four-alarm blaze, with two femme fatales banging out great backing vocals. But it’s Stollsteimer's rugged drawling out of “you’re not the apple of my eyyyyyyyyeeeee” that really sticks with me.

This Von Bondies record took 5 years to surface. Guns 'n Roses needed some 15 years to make Chinese Democracy a reality. While Randy “The Ram” might revel in ‘80s hair metal, resemble a modern day Axel Rose (that beach blond mop!), and make his ring entrance to “Sweet Child 'o Mine,” he’s got more in common with the humbling roughneck of Detroit garage rock than Sunset Strip glitz. Rose and Stollsteimer strike me as perfectionists; with a talent for making their surroundings explode around them, with both positive and negative results. While Chinese Democracy turned out to be a disastrous cluster fuck of bloated pretense, Love, Hate is a paramount example of swift skill, blistering energy and simple yet effective execution. Also, Axel’s 6 or so ballads can’t match Stollsteimer’s epic swan song (“Modern Saints”).

“The Ram” lives in a rundown trailer park and the scenes where he’s at home, playing with his own 8-bit character on an old Nintendo wrestling game, recall the film 8 Mile. The city where "The Ram" resides mirrors the automotive apocalypse of Detroit. Could it be that "The Ram," Detroit and The Von Bondies are all on their last leg, trying to recapture old glory?

“Pale Bride” is the finest song Stollsteimer has written to date. If Axel blew his load with “Welcome To The Jungle” and "The Ram" peaked in the '80s, Stollsteimer has caught a second wind tantamount to when Hunter Hearst Helmsley reemerged as Triple H. Therefore, “Pale Bride" is “C’mon, C’mon” on steroids, with another dazzling opening riff that sizzles into a galloping juggernaut that operates as a pop number with a sharp blade ⎯an angst filled love song that could get you a dance with your ex.

Released last year on the We Are Kamikazes EP, I’ve been enjoying “Pale Bride” for more than a year and it’s just as riveting now and murderous live. The equaling enthralling EP cuts, “21st Birthday” and “I Don’t Wanna” also make the album’s track list. But, Stollsteimer didn’t apex on Kamikazes, he’s got a couple secret weapons left to launch.

There’s a scene in The Wrestler where "The Ram" and Miresa Tomei’s character share a beer at the local watering hole. When the classic Ratt hit "Round and Round" comes over the speakers, they bask in some nostalgia, with "The Ram" saying “The '90s fucking sucked!” "The Ram" yearns to be with Tomei, wishing that she’d take a chance on him. Love, Hate tunes such as “Chancer” and “Accidents Will Happen” could be the soundtrack to those romantic moments in Ram’s life (if they weren’t so ‘90s!). While "The Ram" spends his spare time in a strip club, the latter Von Bondies track conjures up Happy Days, with a groovin’ go-go beat and more stellar vocals from Stollsteimer.

"The Ram" is a man that is larger than life, faded like John Rambo yet as animated as Homer Simpson. The Wrestler has been compared to films like Rocky, Raging Bull, On The Waterfront and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He’s a lovable loser that gets a brief moment to relive his glory days. We all know people like "The Ram," good guys that can’t help but fuck-up their lives. And as The Ram’s second chance at restoring his personal life quickly slips from his mammoth, weathered fingers, it hits him as hard as the thundering chords on “Earthquake.”

“This is no earthquake honey, you just got sober… this is no earthquake, honey/ you just get older/ older and older,” Stollsteimer harmonizes on a track that meshes a little bit of Interpol and recent Morrissey. As The Ram’s fall from grace is sobering, The Von Bondies steam back by examining failure. “Earthquake” is a rumbling track, but it’s not so much about being caught up in the chaos, it’s more reeling from the effects, standing in a mound of pulverized structures and being humbled and ready to rebuild and begin anew, thankful to be alive for a second chance.

I was on the edge of my seat in the movie theatre as "The Ram" perched himself atop the turnbuckle, preparing to squash The Ayatollah with his "Ram Jam" finishing move. Considering that "The Ram" gripped his chest as his heart struggled during the bout, one could only think that death would be certain upon landing if "The Ram" flew into the air. With a tinge of The Joshua Tree and The Killers on it’s majestical intro, Love, Hate’s “Modern Saints” fits The Wrestler’s last sequence beautifully, as "The Ram" raises his arms in triumph as he’s once again the king of the ring.

In a digital era where pop culture icons and heroes have been reduced to megabytes, Stollsteimer’s chanting of “modern saints for modern hopefuls” is bittersweet. But regardless of historic era, what makes a saint? "The Ram" was no angel, but he was a hero to some. The Von Bondies will never be rock stars, those days are long gone. But, with Love, Hate, this band has gotten a second chance "The Ram" hoped for. As Stollsteimer sings his heart out one last time, with the guitars and drums erupting underneath him as he stands at the lava gushing precipice, he goes: “so the days/ turn to nights/ ripping my life away/ what’s in store?”

The comeback of a lifetime. //DC//

Watch the music video for "Pale Bride"

Pale Bride

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