The Raveonettes: one key, three chords, 13 neo-garage classics (courtesy photo)

The Raveonettes concoct a dizzy gimlet of punk, skronk, sex, and Buddy Holly

Chain Gang of Love, the full-length debut by Denmark's the Raveonettes, might be the year's coolest collision of concept and craft: 13 hard, fast, irredeemably sassy neo-garage tunes written in one key (B-flat major) with a limited number of chords (three) about two topics (sex and Buddy Holly). It is, without question, the fuzziest album released by a major label in 2003. Opener "Remember" materializes out of an expansive cloud of reverbed arpeggios while the melody in "That Great Love Sound" does battle with a torrent of squealing white noise. "Noisy Summer" lives up to its title with a hydrogen-bomb chorus, and "The Truth About Johnny" is that Johnny digs Glenn Branca.

The Raveonettes' single glorious trick is marrying the tuneful faux-naif wonder of early girl-group pop to the soiled bluster of vintage New York postpunk. Which, yes, is a trick they baldly lifted from the Jesus and Mary Chain, who invented it in Scotland 20 years ago after wearing out all their records by the Ramones, who really invented it 30 years ago, before punk was post. But the Raveonettes - singer/guitarist Sune Rose Wagner and singer/bassist Sharin Foo, both handsome enough to earn a leather-clad appearance on Chain Gang's sleeve - give the now-familiar formula a twist with their northern-European nous, offering an outsider's view into the mythology of American sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll, a phenomenon even the Strokes would admit has staled a touch to attentive natives. Each of Chain Gang's songs bristle with an alien buzz that's just slightly off: The title track's quaint misapprehension of hard labor, "Love Can Destroy Everything'''s lonely space-station bleeps, and the way "Little Animal" shows its hand within the first 15 seconds ("My girl is a little animal/She always wants to fuck"). The CD's '50s B-movie artwork, too, betrays the band's out-of-towner status: What American would follow up a claim that they made "whiplash rock 'n' roll" with a note about what key it was recorded in? On the phone from a tour stop in London before heading to the States for quick round of shows, Foo cops to their unique position.

"Viewing it from a distance can make it more attractive and seductive," she says of their perspective on their source material. "But you can also see all the little cracks in there. I mean, the Americana feel and all the icons has a kind of double side to it - it's both a real homage and there's some satire in there, as well. There's a little bit of - how do you call it? - voyeurism to it."

She's right about that. The sex in Chain Gang - and there's a lot of it - comes saddled with a chilly sense of reservation - not Julian Casablancas' big-city ennui, nor Jack White's backwoods remove, but a sort of film-noir disinclination to actually engage in the messy reality of love. Wagner's songs are riddled with creepy intimations of the male gaze, of watching but not acting: "Changing your strut when you know I'm behind you;" "That's when I caught a glimpse of you across the street;" "You stare at her and she looks so fine/You stare at him but he's all mine." In most of the songs, they sing the lines together, but their harmonies aren't your typical boy-girl variety, where the two vocalists pretend to sing to each other. They don't even really sing at each other, instead just sort of inhabiting the same melodic space at the same time.

"I remember this German guy once told me that our music gave him this image of some ghosts that were surfing in California while it was raining," Foo says. "That's a weird kind of picture that I thought was kind of neat."

Each of Chain Gang's songs bristle with an alien buzz that's just slightly off
The Raveonettes' heritage also informs their music in its conceptual purity. Whip It On, the band's 2002 EP, established their one-key/three-chord process, and if it seemed like a short-lived gimmick then, Chain Gang illuminates the possibility within it. On Gang, Wagner and Foo dig deep into a small pool of stylistic tools, as opposed to skimming a larger surface area: tempos shift, tone varies, dynamics matter. And though their music is about as noisy as pop allows, it's never sloppy or casual: Listen to the way the careful slide guitar part in "Love Can Destroy Everything" curlicues around those lonely space-station bleeps, or the measured drum-machine patter in "The Love Gang," or how elegantly the amplifier skronk are threaded through "Let's Rave On."

American critics have been tempted to draw a line from the Raveonettes' mannered sound to the procedural shenanigans of Danish filmmakers working under the hypernaturalist Dogme 95 agreement. There's an audio-verité throb to Chain Gang that unquestionably echoes the in-your-face urgency of a film such as Lars von Trier's The Idiots, especially when you consider both works' limited palettes. Foo shrugs off the parallel.

"I think sometimes it feels like people are reaching for a comparison with the Dogme movies," she says. "I definitely feel there are similarities - just the whole concept of having guidelines to what you do - but I think it's something that many people do in the creative process. It's just not so often that people talk about it."

Wagner and Foo do. "That was the way for us to create the Raveonettes sound," the bassist says. "I kind of find it difficult to see us not doing it, not having those guidelines. I think it would be interesting to have a really long career based on songs in the same key. We talk about it sometimes, Sune and I, like 'Whatever the music needs, we'll give it to the songs.' If they need four chords or five chords, they should definitely have it. It's not like we're trying to limit ourselves or restrict ourselves. It's only supposed to be inspiring, and if it becomes limiting, then we'll just fuck it, you know?" •

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.