Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
The Dandy Warhols have always been musical outliers, dabbling in garage, psych-rock, shoegaze, electronica, glam, and classic rock, but never quite settling in one groove (or style) for long. The band’s sonic-outsider status was never more prominent than it was in August 2000, when the Portland-based group released its third album, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, two months after its U.K. release. In the U.S., nü-metal and post-post-grunge had nearly obliterated the quirk-friendly alt-rock community into which the quartet slipped after 1997’s …The Dandy Warhols Come Down. Case in point: Bands appearing on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart the week of Thirteen Tales’ release included Papa Roach, Disturbed, Limp Bizkit, 3 Doors Down, Eve 6, and Creed.
But being the underdog—and up against knuckle-dragging dreck and angry-suburban-dude radio rock—kick-started the band’s creativity. They rented what was once a gay men’s gym in Portland and used the distinctive space (the sauna was apparently a “perfect drum room,” according to keyboardist Zia McCabe) to track the record, and then took more than a year to mix it. The resulting album wasn’t a pristine studio creation, though. Thirteen Tales excised the drone-and-moan guitars, glassy-eyed harmonies, and pronounced hooks of Come Down in favor of something more left of center: a diverse collection of classic-rock and British-rock pastiches that explores what happens when the party’s over and reality sets in. Besides romantic disappointment, the record confesses fears about aging, has harsh words for a terrible ex-friend (who is soulless, heartless, and godless), dabbles in religious disillusionment, and even hints at suicide.
The underlying somber tint of the record isn’t immediately obvious, mainly because the Dandys are often incorrectly mistaken for a band focused on style over substance—thanks to their carefree, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude toward debauchery, nudity, and drugs; the garish video for “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth”; and their impeccably chic threads. Plus, Thirteen Tales also has plenty of characters that aren’t troubled by life. The narrator of the Come Down-esque “Cool Scene” isn’t interested in taking part in petty, high school-like scenes, while the protagonist of “Solid” feels swell because not only does he have “a beautiful new Asian girlfriend,” he has the ability to clear his head from past emotional baggage and exes. And after some hand-wringing and props to supportive friends, the main persona of “Big Indian” comes to terms with the fact that the future is scary and uncertain.
And Thirteen Tales is rarely a musical downer; it encourages blissing out rather than shutting down. Accordingly, the record is heavily influenced by psychedelic rock of all stripes: cracked-out folk (“Country Leaver”), sprawling jams (“Godless,” “Mohammed”—the latter of which features mournful trumpet from Cake’s Vince DiFiore), and ambient delicacy (“Sleep”). The latter song is one of Thirteen Tales’ most moving tunes, one overwhelmed by a bittersweet sense of finality. Frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor murmurs the occasional lyric (“If I could sleep forever / I could forget about everything”), but his voice blends in with the rest of the mostly instrumental music: minor-key chords, falsetto harmonies, and lullaby-like shimmers.
The Dandys anchored this atmospheric music with some of their punchiest songs to date, as well as the occasional bit of levity. “Shakin’” is a gasp of Elastica-style Britpop with choppy riffs and drums, “Get Off” is concise power-pop, and “Horse Pills” is a tornadic punk vortex. In a nod to the band’s omnipresent sense of humor—something else often overlooked—“Country Leaver” starts with some rather choice farm-animal noises. Meanwhile, “Horse Pills” features a lyrical twist on the oldies song “Itsy, Bitsy, Teenie, Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”; in the Dandys’ universe, this swimsuit causes a wedgie.
Thirteen Tales’ hands-down highlight, “Bohemian Like You,” is also the band’s biggest hit both at home and in the U.K. An effortless pop song with more than a few nods to The Rolling Stones, it boasts creeping organ, Bowie-with-a-cold vocals from Taylor-Taylor, and shambling percussion. The tune’s inclusion in a telephone ad made the band huge in England, while its unabashedly retro rehashing—does the strummy intro ape The Specials’ “Little Bitch” or The Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”?—made it a Britpop night staple. (A video with full-frontal nudity—both male and female—that had to be censored also added to its notoriety.)
But even “Bohemian Like You” is less about celebrating a shiftless lifestyle and more about slyly skewering it. The lyrics run down every doofus hipster stereotype—working at a vegan restaurant, lacking a car, being obsessed with a haircut, knowing someone in a new local band—before culminating in said casual dude suggesting a casual fling, thus bumping an ex-boyfriend (who’s still co-habitating with his ex, natch) to the couch. The song obviously deeply understands this slacker culture—but has enough distance from it to nail why its practitioners are so ridiculous.
When looking back, the interesting thing about Thirteen Tales is that The Dandy Warhols were actually several years ahead of musical trends. The album presaged the pre-’00s surge in stylish rock ’n’ roll throwbacks—from garage rock (The Strokes, The Mooney Suzuki), Brit-inspired shoegazers (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) to ’60s-rock worshippers (Caesars, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, whose “Sister Surround” has a decidedly Warhols-like edge). Even bands like LCD Soundsystem owe a debt to how the Dandys responded to so-called hipster culture: by rolling their eyes and writing a song eviscerating it.
It’s not a stretch to think that if Thirteen Tales was released in, say, 2002, it would’ve achieved far more commercial success. But the band was never one to make concessions for commercial reasons. Instead, in true Warhols fashion, the band pivoted its sound for 2003’s Welcome To The Monkey House. Produced by Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, the album was a slick, synth-pop-geared effort comparable to David Bowie’s 1980 LP, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Long-simmering tensions with Capitol Records boiled over after 2004’s Odditorium Or Warlords Of Mars, a collection of scattershot guitar rock, and the band and label parted ways. In the years since, the Dandys have issued alternate versions of major-label albums—from the pre-Come Down collection dubbed The Black Album/Come On Feel The Dandy Warhols to an alternate mix of Monkey House—and several new studio records, including 2012’s solid This Machine.
Recently, the band also oversaw a newly remastered and expanded version of Thirteen Tales, a release marking the 13th anniversary of the album. What stands out today is how The Dandy Warhols had the uncanny ability to analyze the hedonism and music industry bullshit around them, while never letting either distraction derail its vision. The band reveled in its unique position as participants and chroniclers—and never believed its own hype. While this meant the group perhaps never quite lived up to expectations placed upon them, they certainly had more fun than many acts considered to be their peers, and made enduring records that still defy genres and categorization.