Where does Stevie Van Zandt find these bands? It’s easy to imagine the Wicked Cool Records founder prowling around with his ear pressed up against strange garages, listening for the vague strains of Hammond organs and Rickenbacker guitars in his never-ending quest to keep rock ’n’ roll alive.
Van Zandt made his way to the UK for his latest discovery, The Contrast, whose founder and lead singer David Reid hails from Glasgow — apparently by way of Liverpool, Memphis, L.A., the Brill Building and Asbury Park, judging from the variety of influences that make up the pop mélange on their new album, “God of Malfunction.”
And The Contrast — around since 1999, with the new album being their first of new material on the Wicked Cool label — has found a winning formula with Reid’s laconic vocals, the band’s exuberant backup singing (it seems they’ve never met a “bop-shoo-wop” they didn’t like) and an unabashed pop sensibility planted somewhere between the Spencer Davis Group and The Knack. (With a little bit of the Ramones thrown in, because I think that’s a requirement before they let you take the Wicked Cool oath.)
The album kicks off with an incredibly infectious trio of songs: “Underground Ghosts” starts things off on a driving high note, thanks to Thorin Dixon’s assured percussion, and “Coming Back to Life” offers the album’s catchiest couplet in “We are strange, getting stranger; we want change, we’ll screw the danger.” I have no idea what it means, but set against Kieran Wade’s carnivalesque keyboards it fuels the liveliest anthem you won’t hear on the radio this year.
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The party continues on “Take Me Apart,” a rave-up that sounds like Freddy Cannon covering Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police.” Even when you think the space noises and echo chamber effects of “I Am An Alien” threaten to derail the proceedings, Reid’s unlikely sincerity saves the song from detouring too far down the road to cheesy.
The momentum of the album’s first half would have been tough to sustain, and while the Byrds jangle of “Gone Forever” is perfectly pleasant, things do get dicier on the proggy title track and a few others — like the sluggish “Better Than They Seem” — that seem to be going for moody but just come out murky. And while the label touts the album’s “Eno-esque ambient textures,” there are more than a few moments when Wade in particular seems to be trying a little too hard to get out of the garage rock box — he sounds like a demented Tony Banks impersonator.
Still, they successfully go darker near the end with the ’90s-tinged guitar rocker “Thought You Were Strong,” and on the whole make you hopeful for Van Zandt’s burgeoning garage rock resurgence. The Contrast deserve comparison to the Gaslight Anthem with their pounding drums and penchant for “splintered good luck charms and fast cars,” and I hope they see some of the same success. “God of Malfunction” may not be the most sophisticated album you’ll hear this year, but it may be the one most likely to help save rock ’n’ roll.
The Contrast, “God of Malfunction,” Wicked Cool Records, April 13.