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Nice Things About Detroit

With an album of classic techno covers, the Dirtbombs rep for the utopian musical mix of America's most maligned metropolis.

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Transplanted Michiganders sometimes slip up and use the term "party store" in mixed company, forgetting for a moment that few people raised outside the state know that it refers to what's more commonly—albeit less enthusiastically—called a liquor store. (I wonder how many out-of-staters think people from Michigan are subject to strange and sudden cravings for balloons and streamers.) Mick Collins, a recent emigre to Brooklyn after decades of service in the Detroit music scene, named the new Dirtbombs album Party Store (In the Red), and it's tempting to imagine he did so precisely because he realized that most of his audience wouldn't get what he meant by it. After all, the Dirtbombs are a garage band, loosely speaking, and on Party Store they cover classic Detroit techno songs. Collins must have known that at least a few people wouldn't get what he meant by that.

Collins made his name in the late 80s and early 90s with the Gories, whose messy, lo-fi punk-blues has proved hugely influential in American underground rock—on a reunion tour this fall, they packed the Empty Bottle for two nights. In the Dirtbombs he's peppered his output with covers of everything from proggy art-rock to vintage soul (most notably on the group's breakthrough 2001 covers album, Ultraglide in Black), but a loving homage to techno is a serious lateral move even for a band that's already strayed far enough from the three-chord stomp of garage to do justice to "Sherlock Holmes," a 1982 song by archly theatrical synth-pop group Sparks.

Collins has been listening to the records the Dirtbombs cover on Party Store since they came out, though—which for most of these songs means the 80s or early 90s, during techno's initial rise. Though in those years he was devoting himself to bringing back the glorious sloppiness of garage rock's first boom, it's no stretch to believe that he genuinely loved techno at the same time, despite its machinelike precision. Detroit's black-oriented radio stations were among the few broadcast outlets where an unsuspecting fan could discover Kraftwerk while the band's records were still new, and the robotic Germans would rub elbows on DJs' playlists with relatively warm-blooded acts like Funkadelic—a juxtaposition that helped inspire the birth of techno in the first place.

The slow depopulation of Detroit since the 50s, which has lately inspired roughly a bazillion irritating economic-apocalypse trend pieces, plays into this dynamic too. Abandoned warehouses, mansions, and high-rises are a boon to anyone looking for a place to throw a rave, have band practice, or just live. The shrinking population has also made it harder for people to stick to just one scene, like they seem to prefer to do in bigger cities.

Techno is as much a part of Detroit's musical fabric as garage rock or Motown, with just as diverse an audience. Back when the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (now called "Movement") was still free, it drew ravers, young rockers, hip-hop heads, middle-aged guys who looked like auto workers, and all sorts of other folks. Seen in this light, Party Store is as much a tribute to Collins's hometown as the famously cheap video for the Gories' cover of Machine's "There but for the Grace of God Go I"—by using some of the Motor City's most burned-out scenery as a backdrop, the band proudly claimed it as their own. The Dirtbombs covering techno is as thoroughly and profoundly in the spirit of Detroit as radio stations mixing Kraftwerk and George Clinton or garage punks hanging out with ravers.

As weird a proposition as "Mick Collins covering Detroit techno songs" might seem on first blush, it turns out to be several times weirder when you actually get down to listening to the album. No one I've talked to who's heard Party Store—a tiny group, granted, all of whom got promo copies in advance of its February 1 release, but a group that contains fans of Mick Collins, fans of techno, and fans of both—likes it. Personally I'd put it in the early running for a spot on my list of the top ten albums of 2011.

"Cosmic Cars," a 1982 single by electro supergroup Cybotron, is admittedly an off-putting song to start the record with. The original was like a slightly funkier Kraftwerk tune, and its minimal, repetitive, awkward melody doesn't benefit from being run over by a five-piece rock band. The Dirtbombs' customary double-drummer lineup is in full force—the album also uses a lot of what seem to be electronic or triggered drums, likewise played live—and that approach hardly flatters the chilly exactitude of the source material. Things get better from there, though. A relatively faithful version of A Number of Names' funk-tinged 1981 single "Sharevari" proves much more amenable to the Dirtbombs treatment. Its thumping, uncluttered psychedelic groove suggests Liquid Liquid after a Nuggets binge, topped off by Collins speak-singing in a faux French accent that drips with fromage—he plays up the cheese even more shamelessly than the already corny original.

That same playfulness—the feeling that Collins is leading us on a gleeful tear through a corner of his formidable record collection—pops up again in the group's take on Derrick May's soulful, R&B-inflected 1987 "Strings of Life." Collins struggles audibly with a tricky rhythm-piano part he's transposed to guitar, and he has almost as much trouble keeping the guitar in tune (hardly an unheard-of problem for him). It might just be the best take he had in him. But honestly it seems more like a nod to the comic potential inherent in the whole Party Store project—a notoriously fast-and-loose rock band tackling music originally made with sequencers is so certain to produce slapstick that it seems rude to assume the pileups are unintentional.

Mostly the Dirtbombs avoid raising conceptual questions, though—they're clearly trying to remain faithful to the spirit of the original songs, even if they can't always pull off every part. They beef up DJ Rolando's "Jaguar," which in the propulsively blippy 1999 original evokes both Kraftwerk's Autobahn and the highway itself, into a precision-tuned steamroller of rocked-up disco. DJ Assault's 1999 ghettotech anthem "Tear the Club Up" becomes a burst of minimalist chant-along punk that could soundtrack a bit of club-tearing-up just as well as the original. And Collins and Ko Melina's dual soul-gospel vocals on the Dirtbombs' version of "Good Life" by Kevin Saunderson's Inner City—a superpopular 1988 hybrid of pop R&B and techno—might even be an improvement. The way their arrangement seems crafted to provoke an epiphany—and probably a burst of serotonin—in listeners' brains ought to make it welcome even on dance floors that normally have little use for rock bands.    v

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