It seems fair enough to call the Dirtbombs a garage-rock band: they’re from Detroit and their songs are built on brash distortion and propulsive backbeat. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, right? Except in this case it also has whiskers and a wet snout: unlike most garage cultists, the Dirtbombs have shown more affinity for funk and electro than for Nuggets, and they’ve never adhered to any kind of retro orthodoxy. Even the line-up — singer/guitarist Mick Collins is backed by a double rhythm section, two bassists and two drummers — seems like it was configured for another group altogether, perhaps some kind of funk/jam-band monstrosity.
Their new album won’t make the garage tag fit any more easily. Previous Dirtbombs full-lengths have been single-minded by design (their first album was conceived as a punk rock record, their second as a soul album, the last as big mainstream rock). We Have You Surrounded, though, maybe because it was originally planned as an EP, is notably diverse. As always, the band’s eclecticism is apparent in their choice of covers: the apocalyptic ‘Fire in the Western World,’ by fellow garage stalwarts Dead Moon, is not so surprising, but there’s also the wistful ballad ‘Sherlock Holmes’, by new-wavers Sparks, and ‘Leopardman at C&A’, from a lyric by British comics artist Alan Moore (and originally intended for Bauhaus).
Dirtbombs certainly haven’t left behind the punchy, direct rockers that have been their bread and butter. Songs like ‘I Hear the Sirens’ and ‘Pretty Princess Day’ are lean and muscular, stylish without being flashy. But the band continues to branch out, from the menacing caterwaul of ‘They Have Us Surrounded’ to the disco strut of ‘Indivisible’. These adventures are for the most part successful, in the sense that they don’t embarrass anyone, but they also seem to be a function of the band mellowing out a little. Not that We Have You Surrounded is exactly sedate, but the reckless abandon that has characterized most other Dirtbombs releases is only sporadically in evidence here. Hopefully when the band gets some of its focus back, the ferocity will come with it.