Watered Down

From MTV to Rolling Stone, everyone loves the Distillers. Except us.

Rock 'n' roll is the emu oil of 2003. Its supply so far exceeds demand that record companies are starting to look like the befuddled ranchers of the mid-'90s, who were forced to free their stocks of giant flightless birds all over Texas' Hill Country when the beasts' commercial viability was exposed as a myth. But perhaps more than with emus, the value of rock bands varies from one to another -- and the Distillers are a prize stud for sure.

The hearty L.A.-based punk band experienced notable rock-radio success with its second album, 2002's Sing Sing Death House, and its jump from indie (Epitaph) to corporate (Warner Bros.) has been accompanied by as much hype as any brood of guitar-fondlers has seen in years.

Guitarist/vocalist Brody Armstrong, one of the only singers currently on a big-label roster who can claim true punk rock bona fides -- much less actual charisma -- is now a celebrity. Her personal life is flashed across Rolling Stone spreads with images of her kissing her new beau, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. Meanwhile, speculation about her divorce from Rancid's Tim Armstrong has made her Yoko to a generation of Lilliputian neo-punk scenesters. And she's become so sought-after and controversial, she's not even giving interviews -- at least not to this potent little weekly.

"It sucks," said Distillers drummer Andy Granelli. "It's her own personal life. A lot of the things people are talking about are things that have no bearing on the music."

Speaking of that music, the band's new CD, Coral Fang, was jealously guarded, with a few watermarked high-security copies assigned to the ears of Warner Bros. execs only ... or anyone determined enough to trek to their offices.

Thus, in the run-up to the album's recent release, we had to make our way into the minimetropolis that is Warner Music HQ in L.A. for our on-site-only album-listening. We were led to an austere window-office with the leafiest possible angle on the San Fernando Valley.

Having spoken to Granelli by phone earlier on, we were expecting the Clash's London Calling or the Replacements' Don't Tell a Soul -- a departure that's as much an artistic breakthrough as it is a promise of relative commercial success.

"We definitely did our own thing on this record," Granelli declared. "I think it's as original as rock music can get." Granelli went on to cite a rock historian's A-list of influences: the Pixies, Echo & the Bunnymen, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bauhaus .... "It's just inspired by everything that we've been listening to that's not punk," he said.

Back at Warner, we panted, we drooled. In went the CD. And out of the speakers came ... a punk album.

Let us step back for a moment: On the L.A. quartet's eponymous 2000 debut, Armstrong screamed punk passion in vengeful slogans and roughshod images. On Death House, in between the jackhammer rave-ups, she channeled her passion into forthright politics and poetry. "I Am a Revenant" employed a risky metaphor for rape survival -- namely, horror-film reanimation -- and actually managed power and poignancy. And "The Young, Crazed Peeling" might just be the best (OK, maybe the only) punk memoir song ever recorded, sweeping from the streets of Armstrong's native Melbourne to her marriage to a California boy. The band, including bassist Ryan Sinn, played with pounding conviction -- mammoth chugga-chugga-slaaasssh, three-chord generics -- that was rockin', if not exactly imaginative. Punk purism was rarely as sincere or moving as the music of the Distillers.

Coral Fang both grows and sheds branches, but it certainly won't offend any but the most sanctimonious of the punk cognoscenti. It's a consistent, unassuming, darkly textured album that doesn't get any closer to CCR than, say, Joan Jett ever got, and dips only a toe into psychedelia amid the chugging riffery. There are underlying bluesy inflections here and there that will add fuel to the rantings of creeps who consider Armstrong's musical MO to be wholly nicked from her boyfriends, but it's more X than Queens of the Stone Age.

Perhaps the most marked difference between Death House and Coral Fang, though, is the lyrics.

"With this record, it's more descriptive and more metaphoric, not as testimonial," Granelli said of Armstrong's songwriting. "I think that's something that she wanted to do on purpose, just to kind of add to it being more like a soundscape kind of thing." Savvy enough to know he'd uttered a word whose synonym is "pretentious" in the rock-critic lexicon, Granelli backpedaled: "When I say soundscape, I don't mean it in a lame way. What I mean is adding to the melody and using cool words, making it interesting, but not necessarily making it make sense."

Here is where Coral Fang meddles with -- rather than builds on -- the Distillers' established style. The ace for Armstrong the lyricist is directness, whether it's the proudly personal-political biography that can be pieced together from Sing Sing or Coral Fang's overt love and sex songs, which dominate the second half of the album. In "Love Is Paranoid," its ninth track, when she observes, "I've taken everything, now I want to give it/ I left the lights on so you'd stumble in devotion," it's hard not to believe in her openness. But in "The Gallows Is God," no matter how much conviction her voice packs into lines such as "Oh, how my death march brings a tear/ Oh how the noose it swings when you die," the words are as hard to swallow as the arena-schlock gibberish of, say, the Used or Vendetta Red.

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