To quote a trusted source: I once wrote that the Thriftones sound like “the house band at a back-country road bar.” But after listening to the band’s self-titled debut, it’s clear that while they could definitely fill that role, they are far more versatile than that. Still, there’s no way around the fact that the Thriftones sound an awful lot like Bob Dylan. This album borrows freely from the Bard at all points, from singer Matthew Davies’ pinched vocal delivery to the organ and harmonicas that fill the tracks. That said, when the Thriftones do Dylan, they do it well. But when they stray from the traditional into more nebulous territory, it’s even better.
As an example of the former, take second track “Good Girls,” a bluesy two-step that sounds unearthed from a Highway 61 B-sides collection. It’s about playing the “bad boy” to get the girl – which seems retro for some reason – and it’s full of piano slides and plucky guitar licks. What makes it more than a cheap knockoff for me is the sense that it was recorded live. In a room. As a band. It has the gregarious, booze-drenched warmth that makes “Rainy Day Woman” or the Basement Tapes essential listening. After the piano stutters and trails off to mark the end of the chorus, you can hear someone holler a four-count to bring the band back into the verse. It’s an old-school move that sounds refreshing in an era of click tracks and overdubs, and makes “Good Girls” feel authentic.
For “Darker Side of Life,” on the other hand, the Thriftones reuse the instrumentation from “Good Girls” to make something that sounds darker and more contemporary. The drums are huge, the bass is fuzzed out and the dreamy guitars swimming through the chorus could be from a Beach House song. It’s about as close to indie rock as the band gets. And yet, “Darker” rides on heavy blues chords that keep it in line with tradition and the rest of the album. While “Good Girls” foregrounds its influences, “Darker” absorbs and rearranges them, with more interesting results.
For every “Good Girls” on this album, there is a “Darker Side of Life.” “She’s Too Hip” lists the characteristics of the titular female (“dark brown hair/dark brown eyes/lily white teeth though she rarely smiles”) over a predictable surf riff. But “Disposable Me” laments modern materialism via a gentle Americana ramble that builds into a charging guitar attack punctuated with ragged yelps from Davies, making it one of the best songs on the album.
Thriftones is an even split between pastiche and originality, and the band is good at both. Now it’s just a matter of finding balance between the two.