Home Read Albums Of The Week: The Exbats | Song Machine

Albums Of The Week: The Exbats | Song Machine

Some dads take their daughters to the mall. This dude started a band with his — and they're pretty sweet, based on this retro-pop outing (and the set I saw at Gonerfest).

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “In a just world, Song Machine, the fifth album from The Exbats, would become one of the most-loved and most-listened to albums of the 2020s.

With the 13-track affair, the Bisbee, Arizona band further their analog back-to-the-future combination of The Shangri-Las and pre-Velvet Underground doo-wop wannabe Lou Reed, churning out catchy tunes laden with buoyant choruses that rank alongside the best A-sides recorded in the shadow of the Brill Building or with the Wrecking Crew in tow. The Exbats are effortless time travelers — and this time, they’ve set the dial for the early 1970s, incorporating the sonic magic of The Partridge Family, Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks, and Brian Wilson into the crux of their musical ethos, evident on tracks like the propulsive Riding With Paul and The Happy Castaway, which bookend the album.

“What I remember about that era is going to record stores and seeing a wall of 45s that somebody was tasked with moving around (based on) the Billboard charts,” says Kenny McLain, who, alongside daughter Inez, is the driving force behind The Exbats. “With our band, we’re kinda moving things around on that towering wall of singles, as if it were from some sort of ancient tomb, and we’re trying to crack a code and make it to No. 1. So, I suppose, some magic door will open. And we’ll all be free? Or something like that.”

Inez has played drums and sung for The Exbats since she was just 10 years old. Surveying the band’s back catalog in relation to Song Machine, she adds, “I always felt like our progression is similar to that of The Kinks — starting off garage and punk and then becoming more deliberate about everything.” On Song Machine, time stops altogether when Inez masterfully — and wholly unselfconsciously — evokes the remarkable harmonizing of Cher or Karen Carpenter on two songs: Singalong Tonight and What Can A Song Do, which anchor Song Machine while poignantly and audaciously celebrating the very act of singing itself with a sentimentality worthy of Muppets Movie-era Paul Williams. In a different world, either might inspire a viral revolution.

A video for the single Like It Like I Do was filmed at the Tucson’s Tanque Verde Swap Meet. Musically, the song deploys a heady combination of hipshakes and finger snaps, “ah-ah-ahs,” jangly guitars, and crescendoing “whoa-ohs” that are The Exbats’ clarion call. In the video, Inez and Kenny, along with bassist Bobby Carlson and their longtime producer Matt Rendon of Midtown Island Studios, a now-permanent member of The Exbats, clown for the camera as they wander through the sprawling 33-acre swap meet in a pastiche reminiscent of Robert Frank’s Super 8 footage of The Rolling Stones and assorted passersby circa 1971 — no mere coincidence according to Kenny.

With To All the Mothers That I’d Like to Forgive, Himbo, Cry About Me and the tearjerker If I Knew — which opens with, of all things, an audio clip of a water sprinkler from the opening scene of The Bad News Bears — The Exbats subvert obsolete themes of innocence, desire, and unrequited love into a thoroughly modern feminist perspective. In their facile hands, these songs do more than disrupt the status quo: They topple the entire narrative into a girl-meets-boy story where the girl calls all the shots.

“On an emotional level, (The Exbats) put 1,000 percent — to an unhealthy degree — into the songs,” Kenny claims. “While we’re very dedicated to this type of sound, we’re also aware that at the end of the day, with a little luck, maybe a few thousand people will hear the new record.” On the contrary. Although The Exbats’ home base lies in the remote hinterlands of the southwest, just 11 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border, they’ve managed to rack up a slew of accolades that cite a wealth of influences that run from cartoon quintet The Archies to punk originators The Avengers, and from the so-sweet-it-hurts 1910 Fruitgum Company to Los Angeles antiheroes The Weirdos.

Today, The Exbats straddle the chasm between indie obscurists and bona fide critical darlings. Faced with their first European tour and a prime spot at Gonerfest 20, the McLains both hope — and fret — that Song Machine may be the tipping point. “We’re not trying to move to Los Angeles,” Inez says. “We don’t want record executives to come knock on our door. We don’t wanna get eaten alive! What we hope is that independent radio stations around the world, the ones with real DJs, hear us. That’s how people seem to find us.”

When asked to contemplate the possibility of what comes next, fame or fortune, Kenny and Inez declare that “it’s impossible.” “We made Song Machine for kids who bought 45s from 1965 to 1975, and those people aren’t around anymore,” Kenny explains. Then, in his next breath, he marvels that “We’re really lucky. People have heard us. If Inez and I can start a band when she’s 10 years old and I’m 40, anyone can. We are the unlikeliest duo in rock ’n’ roll, yet we’re putting out really cool little things that people enjoy across the board. I think it’s making a difference.”



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