Rocking down memory lane

Published June 8, 2006

Talk about messing with Mom and Dad's head: When it comes to kids these days and their crazy rock 'n' roll, everything new sounds old again.

Time was, generational battles were born of whose music was better: ours or theirs. But today, growing numbers of teens and tweens are embracing rockdom's mightiest dinosaurs. Such retail hangouts as Hot Topic and Target can't keep Hendrix shirts and Beatles towels and Stones caps in stock. More young people can be seen at a Paul McCartney show than a Foo Fighters gig.

And if you cross-sample rookie rock bands here and abroad, the classic rock influences aren't hidden underneath modern-day soundscapes. Instead, thunderous Black Sabbath sludge, Byrdsian jangle and vintage psychedelia are nothing less than ferociously front and center. That's not merely homage, folks; that's a cover band.

Tom Petty was wrong, it seems: It's really such a blast when you're living in the past. Just ask the dudes in Wolfmother, an Australian trio of head-banging hairballs, and the guys in the Raconteurs, a throwback quartet featuring White Stripes lug Jack White. Each group is garnering great attention and big buzz, not for pushing the envelope but for crawling inside that envelope and mailing it back to 1969. The kids love 'em, and so do I.

Wolfmother's self-titled debut might as well come with a hookah and a black light. But as well as being deliciously heavy and lyrically fantastical - the galloping bass lines, the keyboard grandeur, the lockstepping guitars, the unicorn! - Wolfmother's music is also earnest, like Led Zeppelin with baggier trousers.

With fellow retro-rockers the Darkness, you always sensed they were Spinal Tapping you on the shoulder. Not so with Wolfmother. When Andrew Stockdale, the group's lead singer and hard-strumming axman, sings, "We drank from the serpent's vine, now we live in another time," he's as serious as Ozzy voicing Iron Man.

It helps, of course, that the Aussies can flat-out play. Stockdale's voice is a mesmerizing blend of Robert Plant's operatic yodeling and Billy Squier's below-the-belt growl; his guitar work, especially on the killer Where Eagles Have Been, can be both baroquely delicate and raw-fingered raucous. Bassist-keyboardist Chris Ross sounds like a certified member of Deep Purple, especially on Woman and Joker & the Thief, when he wields his instruments the way Bam-Bam worked a club. And drummer Myles Heskett hits 'em as hard as he can, ably shifting tempos as the boys encounter all sorts of Tolkienesque oddness, including that topless sorceress on the album cover.

Wolfmother makes me wish I had ditched the high school preppy routine and instead wasted great chunks of time stoned in front of the Atari. Ah, what might have been.

On their debut disc, Broken Boy Soldiers, the Raconteurs also have little use for the past 30 years of popular music. That said, the quartet likes to keep things lighter and looser than Wolfmother, and it's much more concerned with sweet melody than lumbering mayhem.

At his day job with the White Stripes, Jack White has always been less interested in hitmaking than noisemaking, making the prickly art-rockers more popular with snobby critics than the music-buying masses. Jack is a postmodern bluesman: keeping the licks, losing the feeling, embracing cacophony.

With the Raconteurs, however, White decides to get catchy and puts his heart right on his sleeve. He shares songwriting and singing duties with fellow Detroiter Brendan Benson, a power-pop player who thrives at writing hummable parts. Add a rhythm section of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, both from Cincinnati garage band the Greenhornes, and the result is something akin to Abbey Road recorded in a biker bar - or maybe the Kinks in cowboy hats.

White and Benson harmonize choruses on almost all 10 tracks, giving the songs a curious buddy movie vibe, just a couple of rocking pals dealing with issues of love and loss. You always got the feeling White was a Lennon-McCartney fan - at least in terms of artistic reinvention - but he proves it musically on the album's best cut, Yellow Sun, with its mop-toppy grooves and slightly sinister undercurrent. First single Steady, As She Goes is more Mick & Keith territory, one of those randy flared-pants struts the British kids are digging so much these days.

And on the galloping prog workout of the song Broken Boy Soldier, a creepy antiwar cut featuring White's piercing squeal, the Raconteurs prove that, musical tastes aside, a generational chasm will always be present. After all, as long as grown-ups are around to make the rules, kids will be more than happy to break them.

Sean Daly can be reached at (727) 893-8467 or sdaly@sptimes.com His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.

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Wolfmother, Wolfmother (Interscope/Modular) GRADE: A

The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers V2 GRADE: B+