By Ashley Zimmerman
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Plenty of Electric Six's converted would follow these well-dressed freaks and their amped anthems of social and romantic chaos to the end of the Earth, but not everyone's that committed. Folks familiar with this Detroit outfit slot nicely into three distinct groups: casual fans with a couple of dance floor smashes like "Gay Bar" and "Danger! High Voltage" from 2003's Fire on their iPods, cultists who've memorized the six(!) comparatively obscure albums that followed, and the concerned friends and family of the second group who can't comprehend how their loved ones could devote so much time and enthusiasm to a band that sounds like Jack Black leading Roxy Music on an endless roid rage ("One and one and one and one and one I'm pretty sure adds up to five/Teenage alcoholics can be oh so entertaining when they drive!").
If the aforementioned touch of Tenacious D isn't a deal-breaker, listening to the Six's later, more lyrical LPs reveals a band with traits similar to critical favorites Of Montreal, the Hold Steady, and the Drive-By Truckers — prolific plunderers of rock's past who refuse to check their intelligence and verbosity at the theater door. But where the commercial success of those infinitely more earnest combos grew gradually from cult roots, the Six has enjoyed an inverted trajectory. "[Our early hits] definitely put our foot in the door and got noticed by people," says singer Dick Valentine, "[but] when the radio stopped caring about us, that's when we relied on the people who stayed with the band like life preservers."
Though assumed by some to be an overplayed joke, the band hasn't been sliding further into obscurity. Happily housed by electro-goth outlet Metropolis Records since 2006, E6's consistent release schedule (they've dropped an album every fall since signing with the label) and constant touring brings in new admirers as the fratboys seduced by Fire fall off. "We went through a solid period there, between '03 and '06, where [shows were] just filled with assholes," says Valentine. "And now I think we have more mature, more productive members of society coming."
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Creative ones too; YouTube features a plethora of inventive short films and class projects scored to hits and album tracks alike — some with more views than E6's actual videos. "If someone is doing your dirty work for you, all the better," says Valentine, who loved a fan's clip from Beijing for "Getting Into the Jam" enough to put it on the band's MySpace page.
Now the band's profile is re-rising. During Valentine's regular visits to late night Fox News show Red Eye, host Greg Gutfeld quotes his lyrics with Chris Farley-like admiration, and last year's Kill was the first album to garner enough positive reviews to score in the green on Metacritic since Fire. Still, it's hard to imagine the NPR crowd fully getting behind technicolor trash like "We Were Witchy Witchy White Women," which builds to an instrumental frenzy worthy of early Pere Ubu — even with Of Montreal's prop-pop operas worming their way in.
And though it's easy to hear traces of the band's humor in mainstream hits like Finger Eleven's "Paralyzer" ("This club will hopefully be closed in three weeks/That would be cool with me") and the oeuvre of 3OH!3 (whose "Do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips" isn't far from the Six's "Dress me up like JFK/Hide in the grassy knoll/And blow me away!"), proto-crunkcore isn't a real genre any more than proto-punk. Too brawny, too brazen, or too beautiful for any scene out there (all at once in the video for "Randy's Hot Tonight!"), the Six are practically without peers. "I just don't see us as the kind of band that people get together and want to be like," admits Valentine.
That solitary existence shows itself in the recordings; Zodiac is easier to compare to the band's earlier albums than to anyone else's. Like "Body Shot" and "Mr. Woman" before them, "After Hours" and "Jam It in the Hole" are sexed-up jukebox hits from an alternative dimension. "Doom and Gloom and Doom and Gloom" swings a saxophone recalling "Future Is the Future" and "Watching Evil Empires Fall Apart." "Countdown to the Countdown" and "It Ain't Punk Rock" employ more barreling, infectious bluster ("Why are all the white people filled with hate?/Why do archeologists excavate?/Number 88/Number 88/Number 88").
The album's only steps away from the usual unusualness of Six's surreal synth-rock courtesy of "Table and Chairs," a swinging ode to marriage ("I used to live in a condominium with three other guys/I was paying $200 a month, but this is way better!"), the record scratches (yes, they know) on "Talking Turkey," and a cover of the Spinners' "Rubberband Man" — the band's first recorded cover since its old label forced "Radio Gaga" onto 2005's Señor Smoke, ironically pissing off Queen fans and killing Six's British radio run.
"We have [the] perspective that a lot of other jobs really suck," says Valentine. "If you treat a band like a job, you realize you have a great job. If you treat it like you're sent here from God, that you're doing very important work by making pop music, that everything has to be perfect, I think you get into a lot of trouble." But where hard-rock prankster predecessors like Cheap Trick and Blue Oyster Cult were well into workmanlike by album number seven, the Six's enthusiasm doesn't seem to have waned. Unfettered by commercial concerns and unsatisfied ambitions, Zodiac finds a band giddy to be getting away with its stereo sins. "Stop, we are good times!" they decree on "Jam It" — "We're from the '80s and we're here to help!" Considering they wrote about "dreamy Yale boys... taking a bath in Uncle Sam's treasure chest" before the bank bailout, you get the sense the Six could disco-describe an American dystopia until we're no longer living in one.
The band has changed things up a little on its endless road trip, though, experimenting with extra percussion and fewer Fire-starters in the setlist ("But if we're sitting in the dressing room and everyone's chanting 'Gay Bar,' it probably bodes well to come out and play it"). Valentine even unveiled a synth-pop side project, the not particularly dissimilar Evil Cowards, last year. But it would take a total economic collapse — or Dick becoming a dad — to throw a wrench into Electric Six's routine. "Though this van might hit a pothole and we might lose a tire," worries Valentine. "[If it does], that's the end of the tour, because there's no way to get another tire." Here's hoping those tires someday take E6 to stages big enough to bring along a saxophonist. That sight is long overdue.