Redd Kross’s 1982 debut album, Born Innocent, ends with a rollicking cover of Charles Manson’s “Cease To Exist,” the song that the Beach Boys reworked into “Never Learn Not To Love” much to Manson’s considerable ire. Following the release of 1997’s Show World Redd Kross appeared to take Manson’s titular instructions to heart: They went on hiatus. Founded by brothers Jeff McDonald and Steven McDonald (currently playing bass for hardcore supergroup OFF!), the band was an odd amalgamation of power-pop melodies, punk stomp, goofy metal grin and garage-rock grit. The group played its first gig as an opening band for Black Flag and signed to Atlantic in the early ’90s but never really broke big, perhaps because Redd Kross’s catchy Mad Magazine aesthetic scans as neither punk irony nor indie-rock wink; it feels appropriate that the band had a song on the Good Burger soundtrack.
But now after playing a slew of reunion shows in the late ’00s, Redd Kross is back with a new album, the curiously titled Researching The Blues, and, once again, it doesn’t exactly fit into the current indie-rock landscape, but at this point that’s part of the charm. Though the album has “The Blues” in its name and in two songs (the hard-rock title track and the pastoral “Winter Blues”), it’s not some sort of B.B. King cover album or an earnest exploration of the genre. Many of the songs have a slightly melancholy touch to them, but there’s also a song called “Meet Frankenstein” with lines like, “Hey Frankenstein, don’t lose your head!” It comes right after a shimmering ballad titled “Dracula’s Daughter.”
Unlike the 21st century reunion of a group like Mission Of Burma, which came after the band’s two early ’80s albums had been deified for over 20 years, the Redd Kross reunion feels considerably less momentous. The band recorded six albums from 1982 to 1997, and though 1987’s Neurotica seems to have emerged as the cult favorite, they each offer their own distinct pleasures. To put it bluntly: Redd Kross has nothing to prove. And, yet, surprisingly enough, that’s what makes Researching The Blues so much fun. “Stay Away From Downtown” sounds like a Squeeze song pumped full of bacon grease. “Uglier” finds Jeff McDonald decrying the decline of civilization over some serious butt-rock guitar noodling, complete with ridiculous “Look out!” warnings during the solo and a whisper breakdown.
The group remains fully committed to the charms and excesses of ’70s radio rock, packing each song so full of hooks and idiosyncrasies that they start to sound like a Saturday morning cartoon version of Big Star. McDonald’s vocals can still hit those adolescent nasal whines on tracks like “One Of The Good Ones” where he tells a girl, “It’s hard to believe there’s nothing up your sleeve.” At times you can hear the gruffness of age creeping into McDonald’s delivery, but the backing vocals more than make up for it. You probably won’t find better oh-ohs and la-las on a rock album this year (sorry, Japandroids record). There’s a studio slickness and a consistent attention to detail here—crisp hand claps, crystal-clear acoustic guitar strumming, clean drums—that most contemporary garage-rock bands have little interest in.
Even though the album clocks in at just over 30 minutes, it does slump toward the end as the group settles in for the long haul with a few ballads and softer songs. The second half still packs a few ear-worm choruses and buzzing guitar chords, but the energy lags. Also, the band members’ sardonic Westerberg-like wit seems to have atrophied a bit since the ’80s when they were tossing off gems like, “I guess you’ll always be a frosted flake.” But their musical chops and especially their production prowess—during the hiatus both McDonalds produced the Donna’s Get Skintight, and Steven produced the Format’s Dog Problems—have only grown more nuanced with age. Researching The Blues finds Red Kross applying that increased technical know-how to the often silly but still invigorating pursuits of its youth, and that alone is reason enough for the band to keep on existing.