Written by Mark Gurarie
Accelerating through a landscape of collapsing, parasitic social media conglomerates, as well as a fractured record industry and its hype cycles, with tires on fire and leaving tread, the Wolfmanhattan Project emerges like the beautiful bastard grandchildren of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bo Didley, and Robert Johnson they are. Coursing on the cracked asphalt laid down by MC-5, the Stooges, and so many others—a highway paved in punk, garage rock, and psychedelia and their continuous revival—this is a band of cartographers: a product of a weird and arty America, of another time and also of today, of the future as imagined in the past, and of the criss-cross of decaying US highways and beaten cities. Today’s rockers—in their many stripes—are reading maps: adding to them, perhaps, but those roads, if worn down, were paved by those that came before, and we know where they go. Oh, what it is to kick up the drive pedal and drive among the mapmakers.
In their second album, Summer Forever And Ever (In The Red Records), The Wolfmanhattan Project —a super-group collaboration between guitarists Mick Collins (The Gories, The Dirtbombs) and Kid Congo Powers (The Gun Club, The Cramps, Pink Monkey Birds), and drummer/percussionist Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, and more)—three genuine cartographers of the jangly garage chart a course. The opening track, “Like Andrea True,” serves as the map’s legend, telling us where North is (the answer: Detroit) and pointing us to the jangly and colorful tension that underlies their musical territory. Above shuffling drums, the squall of piercing lead guitar lines, over a road paved in distortion, Kid’s lovely baritone sets up the stakes when he sings, “All we do is worry / Will I die,” which becomes “All we do is try to go really fast / All we do is try to live in the past.” The Wolfmanhattan Project revs its engines, careening forward while nodding at the blurry white stripes in the rearview mirror.
With their guitar growl, vintage effects, analog bleats, and flourishes, a blistering backbeat, this group is “retro,” sure, and they play up that kitsch. But most exciting is how the band firmly embeds itself in the contemporary. The Wolfmanhattan Project points out current contradictions—their sticky delights and horrors—without hectoring or preaching. In fact, it’s precisely by turning the past on its head that the Wolfmanhattan Project is able to drive us forward. “Summer Forever,” on its surface, is a party anthem: a flamboyant and punky cousin to “Surfin’ USA” or something. A deeper dive reveals an ominous undertow: forever the summer heat because of climate change. In this analysis, the repetition of “it’s gonna be summer forever and ever” becomes downright menacing, especially as it comes after lines like “the rising tide is where I slide” or “This is the Sun of our design / Always sunny and bright,” and “everything flees through the smoldering trees of a new man-made delight.” “Summer Forever,” then, is both a party and the apocalypse: a sock-hop as humanity slips into the folly and decay of its own devising.
The shortest track, “H Hour,” punctuates this apocalyptic vibe. Named after the military term for the time that an operation is to begin, the song leads off with an echo of the Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again” but takes an entirely different exit. Over a bed of rhythmic blues guitar chugging along, it shifts towards a pointed critique of imperialism and militarism: “Gotta build your empire / No matter how / This is H hour / This is now.” Both a dark mirror image of hippie idealism and a tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to punk politics, the tune’s simplicity belies a more nuanced relationship to its subject matter. Throughout the album, the Wolfmanhattan Project relies on irony to grapple with contemporary absurdities, horrors, and anxieties. We’re closer than we have been since the ‘80s to a nuclear war, climate change continues to rear its head, the forces of reaction are strong, and the promised future is an utter drag. Let’s shake it one more time.
But some of the most compelling moments on Summer Forever and Ever are the several less garage-y and more experimental feeling tracks. Clocking in at over five minutes, “New in the World” blends minimalist percussion—Bob Bert’s shakers, bells, and maracas—with spare and meandering piano and guitar lines punctuated by chords and interventions of echoey vocals to help hold it all together. What was a highway has draped itself in a distinctly downtown drag: each element like a splotch of paint spattered on a large blank canvas. “Created / Uncreated / Recreated / Walking new / In the world” go the brush strokes that make up neither party anthem nor angry growl, but a third thing: spare, melancholic poetry. A thematic step from the rest of the album, the song is less accessible than what precedes and follows. I like that tension, the fearlessness of the Wolfmanhattan Project in striving for something beyond hey-ho, let’s go.
So what we get is an album somehow weirder than the sum of its weird parts: a groovy Frankenstein monster high on acid on the way to the mash at the margins of wasted, desolate America. From buzz to buzz and through the haze of eco-collapse and whatever’s left of the music industry, as new generations of guitar-slingers and assorted sundry plug in the coordinates, we are indebted to the garage and punk elders that refuse to hit the brakes. It’s good to see that mapmakers like Collins, Kid, and Bert are, on Summer Forever and Ever, unafraid to blaze new trails and lay down some new tracks.
Mark Gurarie is a poet, writer, and musician from Northampton, Massachusetts. He has a solo project called MG & the TV and plays guitar and sings in the post-punk band Teen Driver.