My experience with the Von Bondies, at least as far as the band's relationship to the Detroit rock scene is concerned, is akin to walking in during the middle of an interesting movie. I was living in L.A. during their local rise to fame, so my entire musical introduction to them came via their major label debut, Pawn Shoppe Heart, which, due to the advance hype and the so-called Detroit "garage rock renaissance" association, I'd anticipated with great expectation. But although I'd liked everything the White Stripes (to whom the band was being compared back then) had done up to that point, the album — even the TV hit, "C'mon, C'mon" (which some folks seem to think should've been on our Top 100 Detroit Songs list in 2007) — didn't really grab or excite me much. There just didn't seem to be enough there there or, to steal a phrase right from Tom Verlaine's lips, it was just too too too to put a finger on. It sounded more like a band trying to be "garage rock" as opposed to the genuine thing to these ears.
Of course, on a national level, Jason Stollsteimer, the Von Bondies' leader and co-constant (with drummer Don Blum), is probably now best known for that infamous fistfight with Jack White, which led to a local stigma that still lingers today. Detroit seems to be begrudgingly proud of the band while, at the same time, even mentioning Stollsteimer in the most neutral of terms can get one in hot water within certain quarters. And then there were all those hassles with the record company, several different lineups with members coming and going, tons of nasty rumors, four years between albums. ...
All of which is why Love Hate and Then There's You turns out to be such a pleasant surprise. Stollsteimer has left the garage rock of the past behind, adapting a style that sometimes approximates '80s — and even late '70s — British new wave, something that's especially evident in the singer's vocals, which can occasionally be grating in the higher pitches but are mostly just dandy. Sometimes, those anthemic vocals and the Edge-like guitar playing — which is consistently excellent throughout — approach stadium-level U2, which is either a bad or good thing, depending on one's point of view. But the savvy rock fan has simply got to love the Cheap Trick-isms ("21st Birthday" sounds almost like an outtake by that band) and some of those pop hooks that, um, pop up all over. I try not to read too much into lyrics these days, but "Shut Your Mouth" is a catchy and rockin' "fuck you" to the band's many critics, both local and beyond. And it obviously takes a lot of balls to title a new song "Accidents Will Happen," since Elvis the C would appear to own the franchise there. But Stollsteimer's version — one of two tracks co-written here with song doctor Butch Walker (there're also several written, for the first time ever, with drummer Blum, including the popgasmic "Earthquake") — certainly passes the power-pop test.
The other Walker co-write, album opener "This Is Our Perfect Crime," is a melodic powerhouse that includes the refrain "We are the underground ...," even if Stollsteimer's aiming for the mainstream. Really, only the dour "Changer" is a throwaway. In fact, 11 of these 12 tracks make it hard to fathom why Sire parted company with the band over this one, even if the label was looking for something "emo." From a stylistic standpoint, Love Hate and Then There's You could easily be filed alongside albums by Weezer or Los Angeles' underrated Tsar, the latter which, like the Von Bondies, never sold a lot of CDs but certainly made records they can be proud of within the annals of pop history. And, in the Von Bondies case, while they're not reinventing the wheel, they've certainly made a record that they can be proud of within the annals of Detroit rock 'n' roll, especially among the stuff coming out of here during the past several years.
The Von Bondies play Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-855, and on Saturday, March 28, at St. Andrew’s Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-8137.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.