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Isn’t it funny how quite often the finest practitioners of rock and roll—that most American of art forms—are those whose passports originate from outside the U.S.? I’m not just speaking of the Beatles, Stones, or Sex Pistols—we regularly extol the virtues of artists from lands unreachable by car from the bottom of my driveway. The best straight-up rock and roll band in the world right now may very well be the Hives, or maybe The Soundtrack of Our Lives, both of whom hail from Sweden, of all places.
But Norway? We’re expected to believe that the land of Vikings, the ’94 Winter Olympics, and Henrik-freakin’-Ibsen has provided us with anything any more rockin’ than the wood John Lennon spoke of in that Beatles song? Well, in a word, ja. Leave it to Little Steven Van Zandt, the garage rock godfather, to find, promote, and produce not just a slammin’ rock and roll band from Norway, but a slammin’ all-female rock and roll band from Norway—Oslo’s own Cocktail Slippers.
Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre gives us a kick-ass rock band donning the costumes and playing the part of an early-60s girl group, like the Crystals or the Shirelles or the Ronnettes, with really loud guitars and the echoed thwap of a heavy-armed drummer. “Sentenced to Love” roars out of the gate with snarl and a backbeat the Strokes should kill for. The band’s “I-yi-yi-yi-yi’s” come from the best syllable-stretching rock and roll tradition (think Axl Rose with lipstick; or better yet, don’t), and the ‘Slippers bring forth the mighty thunder of a band onstage, trying to break the mirror behind the bar from across the room.
As could be expected from a Van Zandt production (Jean Beauvoir co-produced), the music is spiked with references to the very same elements that make his Underground Garage radio show such a blast to hear. The “do-run-run-run” chorus of “You Do Run,” for example, is an obvious homage to the Crystals, couched in propulsive garagy arrangement. The cover of Lesley Gore’s “She’s a Fool” makes an anthem out of schoolyard gossip between girls, about boys (of course), a scenario as old as Arthur Fonzarelli, yet as immediate as the junior high down the street. Connie Francis’ “Don’t Ever Leave Me” likewise gets a modern touch and Banglesque crunch.
Indeed, left to his own devices, Van Zandt seems intent on pretending that it’s still 1964. Of the pair of songs he contributed to the record, the album-closing “Heard You Got a Thing for Me” dips closest to clichÃ©, with its references to a “new boy” with a “bad reputation” who “split for the rumble,” leaving the protagonist to wonder whether his affection for her was real. Never mind that “rumbles” these days are called “beat-downs” and are often uploaded to YouTube shortly after they occur—Van Zandt is definitely going for the “Leader of the Pack” vibe and falling well short.
He and the ‘Slippers make up for it in spades, though, with the album’s title track, a gorgeous slice of pop worthy of the classic voices of Phil Spector’s heyday, not to mention more contemporary purveyors of the art (Kirsty MacColl comes to mind). “Am I still penciled in on your calendar?” singer Modesty Blaze asks, almost pleading. “Am I the late-night call when you’ve got nothing to say?” Driven by jangly rhythm guitar and endless lilting organ runs, the song is a perfect slice of the kind of music one used to hear on AM radio in the days just preceding and just following the British Invasion. It’s vintage, but fresh at the same time. You have to wonder how long it’s been since Van Zandt wrote the song—how long he’s held onto it, looking for the right voices to bring it to life.
He certainly found them in Cocktail Slippers, who wear their girl group inspirations on their sleeves, while providing the rock and roll chops and attitude that save them from drooping into parody. With one foot planted in the glorious past and the other firmly in the here and now, Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre is a great addition to 2009’s summer soundtrack.