For those who like their oldies with a side order of human flesh, the Rock ‘N’ Roll Cannibals will release Blood & Pomade on Saturday at the Black Market Moto Saloon. (Photo by Meagan Jennett)
Rock and roll, and its redneck cousin rockabilly, have long been associated with the spooky and the undead, from the 1950s recordings by weirdos like Hasil Adkins and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins through late-’70s revivalists like The Cramps and The Misfits, who spawned an entire subgenre and solidified a permanent association between Halloweenish subject matter and lowbrow punk rock. It’s probably possible to find traces of psycho-billy in any town if you look carefully enough; it’s practically a folk art, at this point. I’m pleased to report, however, that the Charlottesville chapter of the undead retro rock craze is far better than one might expect. The Rock ‘N’ Roll Cannibals may write songs about voodoo priests and the wolf man, but believe it or not, these are actually some of the best songs coming out of Charlottesville right now. Their shtick may not be anything new, but they pull it off almost perfectly.
The Rock ’N’ Roll Cannibals are the fiendish creation of Tristan Thorndyke, who’s been playing under that name with various sidemen over the past few years. He’s currently backed by Morgan Moran of the Falsies on drums; Danny Price plays upright bass (and takes a turn or two on the mic). Their debut album, Blood & Pomade, is remarkably pure in its dedication to the rockabilly sound; perhaps there’s slightly less reverb than you’d find on a vintage ’50s cut, but there’s none of the distortion, speed, or sloppiness that characterize most punk and garage bands. They sound more like Jerry Lee Lewis at the juke joint than the Ramones hanging out on 53rd and 3rd. Were it not for the monster movie subject matter, this could almost pass for a Gene Vincent record.
The self-explanatory “I Really Wanna Rock’n’Roll Tonight” kicks things off with a honky-tonk chug and a chorus of rapid fire ba-ba-ba-ba-bop’s worthy of the Trashmen. On “Monster in My Pocket” and “Run Back to Your Ma,” Thorndyke gleefully revels in his bad boy persona, and remains roguishly charming even when things get gory. “Dancing With the Devil” provides a more fitting mission statement, “Gonna drink some beer, gonna smoke some bud / gonna drink some Christian virgin blood / gonna dance, dance, dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.” This record is as fun (and as classic) as a rubber Halloween mask, with all of the guilty pleasure of trick-or-treating past the appropriate age.
“Mummified” is a clear highlight, a midtempo surf groove with effortlessly clever lyrics about a mummy girlfriend. The innovation here is not in the form, but in the attitude and attention to detail. The subject matter is a trip through the shallow grave of the usual tropes ripped straight from the pages of Teen Romance and EC Comics (best song title: “Rebel Without a Pulse”) but the near flawless execution is what makes it memorable.
However, any effort this thoroughly dedicated to juvenilia is bound to misstep eventually; the would-be shock humor of “A Modest Proposal” is meant to induce dropped jaws and faint hearts—the lyrics detail, with cartoonish glee, various recipes for cooking babies—but the response is closer to a pair of rolled eyeballs. Likewise, the albums’ hidden track, “Gay Robots (from the Future)” is an embarrassing bit of Internet-era goofery. As with even the greatest drive-in B movie, there’s still a bit of schlock to suffer through before you get to the good bits.
The good bits are more than worth it. It may sound silly to suggest that “Oh, Frankenstein” is one of the best ballads I’ve heard in years, but you’ll only be laughing if you haven’t been infected yet. Thorndyke sings as the famous monster, begging his creator for a bride, preferably one with bolts in her neck and a haircut that points to the ceiling, “I need a girl to keep me company / I need a girl with a frontal lobotomy.” Somehow the poor taste almost makes it more compelling. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is an easy recipe for musical embarrassment (and so is goofy subject matter) but when the song in question is entitled “Oh, Frankenstein,” moments of unexpected poignancy can be surprisingly effective.
There’s something thrillingly unselfconscious about the Rock ‘N’ Roll Cannibals —Thorndyke seems like the kind of guy to whom it wouldn’t occur to not write songs about werewolves. It may sound odd to praise a record like this for its lack of affectation, but there’s a dedication here that would be hard to fake for anyone who hadn’t spent time immersed in the works of Sun Studios and Hammer Horror. They make no apologies for being a scumbag rockabilly band, and their sheer enthusiasm makes it hard to resist. It’s tough to level accusations of poor taste at a group when poor taste is one of their stated goals, and it doesn’t hurt that they happen to be really good at it. The Cannibals have more than enough charm and dedication to their craft to make Blood & Pomade worth a listen.