Released in 2000, Tsar’s self-titled debut CD consisted of ten stellar songs –
that’s 36 minutes and 17 seconds of bliss – that, at least to these ears, added
up to one the most solid power pop albums of all time.
Call me out on a 419 if you wish (if you’re unfamiliar with the charge, that’d
be Blatant and Unabashed Usage of Hyperbole), but, in my defense, I offer
that, outside of the inevitable year-end lists required of all critics, I tend
to avoid using the words “of all time” preceded by any sort of descriptor (e.g.
“best,” “worst,” “least gag-inducing”) when it comes to describing albums.
Please, therefore, take into consideration that, by the mere fact that I’m
including them in my description of this disc, it shows just how much I dig it.
Additionally, please keep that praise in mind when I offer the opinion that
Tsar’s long-delayed sophomore effort...well, it doesn’t actually suck, but man,
is it a major disappointment.
On first listen, Band-Girls-Money sounds so unlike its predecessor that
there can only be two possible explanations:
1) The band has totally and utterly sold out in order to score the massive
commercial success that inexplicably eluded them with their debut.
2) The debut was the sell-out and this is their attempt to capture what
the band has always referred to as “the Tsar tsound.” (Actually, I just made
that up, so they’ve probably never referred to their sound that way at
all...but, guys, if you want to use it, you have my blessing.)
The cynical side of me immediately suspected that #1 was the case. I imagined
the band being courted by a new manager, smoking a big cigar, the conversation
going something like this.
Manager: Boys, how’re ya doin’? Take a seat, take a seat. Look, I gotta tell ya,
I bought your album, and I loved it.”
Manager: Nah, of course not. What, are you kidding me? Do you know how many
copies of your album you sold?
Tsar: Uh...fifty thousand?
Manager: Ha! Get real. You sold twelve copies. Three people from each of your
families, and that’s it. Everybody else bought promo copies from used bins.
Beyond that, your entire fan base consists of journalists and record store
Tsar: What about people from radio stations?
Manager: I’d dignify that with a response if anyone had actually played your
songs on the radio. Now, look, kids, here’s the story. Cut the polished pop
shit, huh? Dirty it up! With a little effort, you guys could be the next
Strokes, the next White Stripes...hell, maybe even the next Jet! Just
sign on the dotted line, and I’ll make you guys stars!
Okay, it probably didn’t go down like that.
In fact, I’m sure it didn’t. After seething with disappointment upon completing
my inaugural listen to their new album, I went back and listened to the
self-titled debut, and there’s actually a song that portended
Band-Girls-Money. It’s called “Afradio, Pt. One & Pt. Two,” and it lasts
less than two minutes, but, to listen to it now, it bears a striking similarity
to several songs on the new album. Unlike every other track on Tsar, “Afradio”
isn’t about power pop; it’s about garage rock...and so is much of
But if we presume that the debut album was the sell-out, which may well have
been the case, then let us also acknowledge that Tsar is overcompensating
terribly with this follow-up, starting with the press release.
TVT refers to Hollywood Records...not by name, of course, because that would
probably be libelous...as the band’s “previous, corporate behemoth-sponsored
label.” In return, Tsar’s lead singer and songwriter, Jeff Whalen, praises his
new label, describing their aspirations as being “as big as a major without the
lumbering, corporate, speed-of-a-glacier thing major labels have.” The release
also makes a point of saying that the band's primary influences are Redd Kross,
T. Rex, the Archies, and...the Dead Boys?!? I'm sorry, was that the Dead Boys,
or the Backstreet Boys? I mean, it was a song from the latter ("Larger Than
Life") that the band covered live – albeit in a tongue-in-cheek fashion – on
their promo-only King of the School EP in 2001.
But enough about the press release. Let’s talk about the new album itself.
Band-Girls-Money isn’t awful, but it’s jarring, screaming at every
opportunity, “Look at us, we’re bad-asses!” The second song, “Wanna Get Dead,”
finds Whalen sneering about “living with the guilt of the fucker you are,”
spitting out the obscenity like he’s cursing for the first time. The title track
leads off the disc and is the first single; it bears a sonic resemblance to the
Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” and makes a lyrical reference to Kathy Fong (a
young lady mentioned in a song title on the band’s debut), but that’s the
closest the song gets to revisiting the old days. In fact, only three tracks on
the new album – “The Love Explosion,” “Conqueror Worm,” and “You Can’t Always
Want What You Get” – immediately bear a resemblance to the Tsar of five years
ago. The rest of the disc has its occasional catchy moments, but they’re
invariably mired in production touches like distorted vocals and fuzz guitars.
It’s probably somewhere between their first and second albums where the true
Tsar lies, a place the band likely visits every time they play live. If they can
find that happy medium on their third visit to the studio – which, at this rate,
won’t result in a new disc until 2010 – I’ll be in their camp for the long haul.
After Band-Girls-Money, however, I’m teetering uncertainly on the
edge...and I anticipate that a lot of the other fans of their debut will be
sitting right beside me ‘til that next album emerges.