On their first full-length release, 2003’s Chain Gang of Love, The Raveonettes offered up a collection of songs that sounded like the result of a jam session between the ghosts of Buddy Holly and Joey Ramone. Its bubblegum melodies were filled with distortion and bizarre, spooky street imagery, creating a package that somehow worked. Pretty in Black, the follow-up, finds the Danish duo and their now fleshed-out band turning down the noise and incorporating a bit more variety, which will probably leave half their audience disappointed and the other half pleased.
The Raveonettes have never been shy about citing their heroes. Their name is a constant reminder of their love for Brill Building ’60s girl-group pop (take out the “-ave-“), which marks some of the high points of the album. Sharin Foo coos through a fluffy, surprisingly faithful cover of The Angels’ 1963 hit, “My Boyfriend’s Back.” You almost have to wonder why it’s there, but it becomes irrelevant as it is just as infectious and fun as the original. For their “Ode to L.A.” (and to retro girl-group pop itself), the band sought out former Ronette and seasoned bad girl Ronnie Spector for guest vocals. It’s an overt effort to mimic the lush, “wall of sound” style that Phil Spector mastered with the Ronettes, and perhaps that’s why it works so well. The band makes no secret of the fact that these songs are the result of an intense love of the music that inspired them.
The first single, “Love in a Trashcan,” is a swaggering guitar number with disposable-yet-memorable lyrics about girls falling for trashy, no-good guys. When Sune Rose Wagner proclaims, “If you touch that girl, you know it’s OK/People say she’s a whore anyway/I think she looks like a nice vamp/Looking for love in a trashcan,” you know you’re in for music that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Almost as fun is “Twilight,” which employs a churning disco stomp that truly allows The Raves to rave.
“Here Comes Mary” combines a lilting melody with disturbing lyrics, and could be the equally grim sequel to The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” It’s a novel idea to follow up on the aftermath of that musically infamous motorcycle crash-quite possibly the most melodramatic moment in rock ‘n’ roll history-and the result is captivating. Also downbeat, the folk balladry of “Uncertain Times” manages to be dreamy, dark and hopeful all at once, boasting the lyrics, “And if the atom bomb should end us both/I’ll be happy to go to the stars with you.”
Some songs don’t fare as well. “The Heavens,” a sleepy ballad that Wagner says he wrote for Elvis, had he been alive today, is nice after a few listens but ultimately a dull, forgettable opener. “If I Was Young” suffers from the same problem. “Somewhere in Texas” is a wasteland of a song that succeeds in conjuring desert imagery but not in going anywhere musically special.
Overall, The Raveonettes justify the changes they made to their sound on Pretty in Black enough to make it a must-have disc for fans and a worthwhile listen for curious observers. The noisy bite of Chain Gang of Love is noticeably absent and will no doubt be missed enough by some to consider this material a letdown. But what the album lacks in intensity it makes up for in variety-and variety makes for a more interesting rave.