Once upon another time--grunge-era Portland circa 1994--a pouty, pun-loving young Turk named Courtney Taylor formed a group called the Dandy Warhols. Their sound was a brazenly light-fingered tribute to an aristocracy of credible musical influences--a plunder romanticized by Taylor's rakishly witty lyrics.
In the years that followed, Europe's kids "got" the Dandys' brand of cooler-than-thou, pastiche pop, but American record-buyers, abetted by a Dandy radio blackout, refused to swoon. 2000's Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia was a silk screening of some of rock's coolest icons, including T Rex and the Rolling Stones. As the lead man, who now prefers to be called Courtney Taylor-Taylor, explains, "Thirteen Tales was pointedly a retro record. We wanted to make a 1971 record." The album's breakthrough track, "Bohemian Like You," a Nutrasweet version of the Stones' "Brown Sugar" and lyrical valentine to Portland hipster life, made the Dandy Warhols big in Europe, where their sound was beamed into homes as the ubiquitous soundtrack to a mobile-phone ad campaign.
Now the Dandys have a new album, Welcome to the Monkey House, and an unexpected if equally derivative new sound. Co-produced by Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, it's a hefty haul of shiny '80s rhythmic electro-pop, influenced by Heaven 17, the Beloved and, of course, Duran Duran. If Thirteen Tales was Taylor's ode to Portland, then Monkey House is the sound of that same Portland songwriter joining the jet set. But is this new globetrotting attitude just a construct pitched ahead of the fashion curve? And, if it is, does that make Monkey House a lesser album?
The album itself, with its nod to Kurt Vonnegut's revered short-story collection, is a fine constellation of songs. "The Last High"--written with the help of Evan Dando--is an exquisitely melodic piece of '80s style and synth-laden melody with lyrics examining the loneliness of fame. The contemplative "I Am Sound" is a tender moment of soulfulness, contrasted by fantastic plink-plonk keyboards and sing-song melody. The insidiously catchy "Plan A" is a wonderfully languid piece of pseudo-trash featuring falsetto backing vocals by Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon.
It is this deliberately antiquated sound that makes Monkey House a surprise package. Just when guitars are back as the soundtrack for the mainstream, Taylor deems them passé. According to Taylor, it's not about predicting the curve. "We've always just been so 'fuck you,'" he says. "We're pointedly not fashionable, because fashion is bullshit. We don't care if it's fucking polka if we can make it break our own hearts or mend our broken hearts." By defying mainstream rock's current trends and Portland's earnestly indie principles, Taylor has created his own brand, a condensed soup of highly consumable melodies, sealed in artfully retro packaging.
"I can't see how I was ever 'underground', since I've always wanted people to notice me." - Andy Warhol
Nowadays Taylor can boast of a friendship with David Bowie. But, even amid humble Stumptown beginnings, the Portland native was determined to act the rock star. He started behind the drums, with alt-glam rockers Beauty Stab. Memories of the Stab live on in infamy, the glossy five-piece remembered more for their matching leather jackets and strategic en masse social arrivals than their music. Former Dandys drummer Eric Hedford, who left the Dandys shortly before the release of their second album, Dandy Warhols Come Down, in 1997, laughs when reminiscing about Taylor's powder-and-paint days. "The pictures say more than I can," he says. "Everybody was in a cheesy rock band back then. Courtney was no exception, no matter how cool he thinks he is now." Those photographs survive as a snapshot of Taylor's resolve to be noticed.
When the Dandys formed in the early '90s, their carefully disheveled rock-star image--now the uniform of countless fashionable rock bands--was in stark contrast to the plaid-shirted solemnity of those Nirvana-influenced times. Sean Croghan, an active member of the '90s Portland scene with his band Crackerbash, wasn't sold on Taylor's antics, but time and experience have changed his mind. "At the time, I went to a show with Elliott Smith and we made fun of [Taylor] one night. We felt like, 'We're so introspective, and this is all gloss and glitz.' Being a rock star wasn't cool...maybe they were just braver than the rest of us. Courtney learned some lessons.... He went away and created this gang."
"Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art of all." - Andy Warhol
Whether the product of personal bravery or intelligent niche marketing, the Dandy Warhols' style has paid off, at least abroad, but not without compromise. Welcome to the Monkey House is not the same album as the one first delivered to paymasters Capitol Records, something that contradicts Taylor's assertion that the Dandys "have been so consistently ourselves." Guitarist Peter Loew is candid about Monkey House's delayed release and Capitol's alterations. "Capitol wanted the singles remixed by this guy [Jeremy Wheatley--the Spice Girls, Duran Duran], and they were really happy with it," he says. "They were willing to spend the time and money to do it all over again. We were willing to play the game a little bit, as long as we weren't embarrassed."
If you're one of Portland's indie diehards, that probably sounds like selling out. A more charitable interpretation is that, along with the band's uncommon longevity, it's evidence of a pragmatic Dandy strategy. One gets the sense that perhaps this band has been around the block sufficient times to rationalize the actions of its record company. Are the Dandys somewhat contrived? Yes. But in today's pop landscape, their compromises are trifling.
For many local bands, the Dandy Warhols will continue to be the wealthy family next door, inspiring envy with tales of luxurious foreign holidays. Some will console themselves with the notion that authenticity is worth more than touring the globe, but Croghan's summation is hard to dispute. "Dandy Warhols did what most of the bands in Portland want to do," he says, "which some people in town who think they're really superior will never do."
It seems bizarre that popular music, arguably the most commercialized and bastardized art form, should inspire such a yearning for integrity. As for Taylor, his philosophy on art and commerce is as close a reproduction of Andy Warhol as the name of his band. "You're not in a band 'til you put something out in the store that somebody can take home and play," he says. And to Warhol's epigram on good business being the best art of all, Taylor has a surprising reaction: "Are you sure he wasn't just making excuses for not knowing what's cool anymore?"
The Dandy Warhols play Thursday, Aug. 28, at the Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038, www.ticketswest.com . 8 pm. $15. All ages.