During the wave of new rock that began cresting two years back, any group of scruffy musicians with beat-up guitars and well-loved vinyl collections seemed like a potential superpower. The trickle-down hasn't finished trickling, but as the buzz bands of 2001-03 begin to release follow-up records, it's becoming clearer which ones have the talent to leave a lasting body of work, and which will depart the scene with only a couple of great mix-CD moments to mark their place.
The Mooney Suzuki seems bound for the latter category. Never a great band, the New York neo-garage veteran caught a break when its second album, 2002's Electric Sweat, hit during the Strokes/Stripes frenzy. Radio programmers and car salesmen alike could hear commercial potential in the group's likable, R&B-dipped teen party anthems. Now The Mooney Suzuki is following the path of The Cult in the '80s and The Black Crowes in the '90s by hiring chart-tested super-producers to convert simple grooves into arena-fillers. Avril Lavigne's sound technicians in The Matrix have lubed and tightened the band's major-label debut Alive & Amplified, converting the disc and the group into a smooth-running, high-powered mechanism.
Alive & Amplified sounds so slick that it slips right by. Early on, the record survives on bluster alone, thanks to booming power-pop like the furious "Primitive Condition" and the accelerated "Shake That Bush Again." Even at its best, though, it seems more committed to sound than songs. "New York Girls" is all about its swampy electric keyboards, while the Stones-esque gospel burner "Sometimes Somethin'" has the right tone but a lack of conviction. On the back half of Alive & Amplified, "Loose 'N' Juicy" and "Hot Sugar" are about as thin as their titles sound. Madison Avenue and strip-club DJs might still bite, but rock buffs should feel free to bail.
The Libertines' self-titled follow-up to its lively 2003 debut Up The Bracket stomps all over The Mooney Suzuki's latest, which is surprising only inasmuch as it's hard to believe the band is still around. Given all the reports of drug-addled tour behavior and near-weekly split-ups, The Libertines seemed to be one of those beloved U.K. acts that disappear after one great record. Instead, songwriter-guitarist Carl Barat wrangled his erratic lead vocalist and muse Pete Doherty into the studio long enough to record The Libertines, a more fully realized version of the group's slovenly pub-punk debut.
The band makes its lack of tightness a virtue on the tossed-off opener "Can't Stand Me Now," the skiffle-y "What Katie Did," and the self-mocking singalong "What Became Of The Likely Lads." The songs possess big, hooky choruses, but the group doesn't rush headlong toward them. The Libertines seems less of an exercise in salesmanship and more a set of lightly buzzed, brightly conversational studies of modern urban nightlife. The record has a sense of worldly resignation, but the band never makes "the inevitable collapse of all things good" sound like a drag. The record stays assured and upbeat, even on the regretful campfire ballad "Music When The Lights Go Out" and "The Man Who Would Be King"the latter a shambling rewrite that inverts the swagger of Up The Bracket's "Tell The King," turning it into a haunting cautionary tale. If The Libertines' members flame out now, it'll be a damned waste.