by Brian Smith
Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Smalls
Yeah, the puppy-dog guitar hero on stage right’s in a Ramones T. The bassist’s wearing a Zep T. Ironic? No. It’s the 21st century and all bets are off; history’s rewritten, Zep works alongside Ramones works alongside Massive Attack works alongside the MC5 works alongside Plain White T’s. There was a time when if you donned a Zep T at a Ramones show, you’d get your head bashed in. There was a time when if you wore a Ramones T to a Zep show, or even to your middle school, those who’d heard of the band would show you the ugliest side of humanity you could ever imagine and rush mean fists to your face. In fact, the Ramones never got popular, nor did they sell any records or get any airplay, until they were done. The weird little disconnected kids who’d get beat up in school for wearing the band’s shirts were mostly smart and creative shut-ins who later got jobs working in film and advertising and used Ramones songs in movies and TV commercials. That’s how the Ramones happened. It was revenge.
Anyway, Dead Letters’ din speaks to the kind of person who can’t get a girlfriend, not only the white tub-o in a beard with receding red hair, but the contemporary equivalent to the kid in a Ramones T all those years ago. It’s music made for lonely, basement-loungers who are angry, quiet and smart. It’s marginalized in that way. That’s what’s weird. And that’s what’s amazing: How can any rock ’n’ roll band — in these awful post modern, MP3 whiteout times, where all music’s always free — mean anything? There is no value anymore. No discernable passion either, not because a band doesn’t have “passion” but because it’s lost in seas of ill-researched blogger and journalist hyperbole, free downloads and ersatz DIY marketing. The self-hypers win in our culture now. Forget actually having to think, or do.
Ok, Dead Letters isn’t doing anything new and it ain’t all that great
yet. It’s the tired Dolls/Stones template of twin guitars, bass, drums and an odd-looking, skeletal lead singer. In fact, many of you’d bid a hasty retreat during the band’s first song. And Dead Letters reeks of an accident, but it’s the kind of accident that got the MC5 together, or brought Iggy to the Asheton’s. Those bands were shit at first; everybody thought so. Upon closer inspection, they were always shit. But shit doesn’t matter. What matters is that they had something that made others want to know more about them.
Dead Letters has a naïveté, an awkward boyish chemistry that’s saddled (and saved) by an intelligence that speaks volumes. It’s a deceptively dumb-dumb intelligence, like the Ramones, but not at all like the Ramones. Nothing feels planned, it just is. No novelty, no irony — the band’s too young, too brave for that. But by some miraculous fluke, Dead Letters has something; it’s uncultivated, certainly, and weighed down considerably by inner-doubt, hesitation and under-rehearsal, but there is something.
At Smalls, in front of maybe 30 people, the band’s fire-headed singer’s at once gangly and graceless, often uncomfortable. He also often rules the room, rules the street outside. His hips swivel, his torso gyrates, he does these high-flying jumps and lands on his knees, James Brown-style. He hasn’t a clue what to say between songs. It’s great. Straight from the heart. When he strips down to blue jeans and shoes, it makes sense. He’s shy, confident and shy again. He could be the neighborhood teen knocking on your door looking to shovel your driveway for a ten-spot, or the weirdo punk who fronts a rock ’n’ roll band and gets more ass than a toilet seat.
The music — and each band member looks impossibly young, not a day over 18 — comes from record collections that obviously see early-Talking Heads, MC5, the Stooges and so on. It upholds singer Kyle McBee’s raspy melodies and inner-song rants well enough.
McBee will sometimes launch into rant-raps, mid-song,’80s beat-box style. These literate lines rife with image-rich social commentary detail hilariously Motor City ills, from downtown condos going belly up to community inertia and apathy.
On “I Was Born Lonely” a fire-up of ’60s garage riffs and throaty, nearly indecipherable chest-hair vocals that underneath — polar opposite the song’s face-smack ruckus — is McBee’s little confessional as told in the song’s title. The skinny little white kid with short hair and gee-whiz smile has no other way to get it out than to shout-growl it. It says that Kyle McBee was that middle-school kid who got picked on, too smart for the classroom, too disconnected for friends.
Let Dead Letters be his revenge.