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A few years ago, Providence, Rhode Island's Amazing Royal Crowns were poised to be the next trash-'n'-twang darlings. But their greasy pompadours, upright bass and '50s record collection were just a front. They defiled swing's squeaky clean image with the Ramones' relentless speed and volume (not to mention their "Hey Ho" chants), the Misfits' gutter-growls, and Iggy's onstage insanity. Forget Brian Setzer comparisons; these bad boys were the Cramps of the '90s.
The Crowns' blistering, self-titled debut caught the attention of rags as diverse as Baby Sue and Rolling Stone. Unfortunately, just as the Crowns hopped aboard the fast track, their train nearly derailed. The slick, then-Warner Bros.-sponsored Royal Crown Revue filed a lawsuit to stop any "identity confusion," and while the legal fight actually earned the rebel Crowns more public sympathy in the end (not to mention becoming a cause célèbre that cemented fan loyalty), they were still forced to drop the "Royal" from their name; hence the new "come get us" album title. But all that was a minor nuisance compared to the nightmare of having their label, Velvel, go belly up and leave them $100,000 in the red.
Thankfully, these punks are as tough as their callused fingers. The Crowns struggled to finance a second album themselves, but then Gretsch-wielder Johnny "The Colonel" Maguire, the man responsible for the band's signature distortion overkill, decided his young son needed some semblance of a normal life. Down, but still not beaten, the remaining members recruited former Speed Devil J.D. Burgess, as well as his bandmate Judd Williams, to replace Maguire and "Super 8 Nate" Moir on guitar and drums. The result was a leaner, cleaner and more melodically adventurous sound, though The Colonel's overwhelming presence left a big void to fill.
Not that the Crowns can deny their fans, or their own restless natures, the chance to push the pedal to the metal. The title song/album opener is a full-blown punk anthem, complete with a shout-along chorus for old fans ("Royal to the loyal we stay"), while the minor-key stomper "The Ride" could be a T.S.O.L. cover (it's actually borrowed from Providence punks Boss Fuel).
There's a good, old-fashioned barnburner to salute Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry ("Halos and Horns"), while "Greasy" and "Chop Shop" relive the joys of both hair pomade (and messy sex -- don't ask) and carjacking with head-banging guitar wails, joyful yells and, in the latter, a taste of the old distortion. The band shows off its new, finely tuned engine with an obvious single, "Mr. Fix-It," a hilarious macho-man response to the last album's "If You Can I Can," full of horny Clash riffs, arena-size Farfisa runs and sexy female harmonies.
However, even before they were rescued by Time Bomb -- home of compadres Mike Ness and the Reverend Horton Heat -- the "new" Amazing Crowns were becoming weary with their admittedly limited repertoire, so they've started treading into more serious genre devotion, not to mention a little self-examination, with production help from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Joe Gittleman (who's been there himself). These are dangerous waters -- it's all too easy to drown in imitation -- but when the Crowns jump-start their adrenaline, go-to-hell retorts and the wicked humor that's second nature to their hard-bitten real lives, they stay afloat.
The sparkling surf reverbs and "whoa whoa" harmonies of "Perfect Sin" may drip with melancholy when singer Jason "King" Kendall croons "A model home and a pretty wife . . . these things I never hope to find," but when the bass kicks in and he belts, "I'm living in sin and I'm living fine," it's the kind of fevered rock gospel you have to believe. Since the Crowns didn't exactly reinvent the wheel with songs about sacrificing love for life in a van (there's also "Out the Door" and the nearly existential "Invitation to Alienation"), the traditional techniques 'n' polish, while impressive, would just be window dressing without the rumble and fury. Thank God, at least Kendall's not getting mushy on us. He did, however, take lessons from no less than Steven Tyler's voice coach, of all things, to tackle a mournful pedal-steel ballad, "Flipping Coins," a tribute to a cousin who died too young, with much the same fatalistic attitude. Whenever Kendall tries to show a little sentimentality, or even spirituality, he just can't help but snap back into his natural, cynical self.
The band is obviously in transition, and while its newfound flash can sometimes be as unnerving as its rough edges once were, there are enough spontaneous bright spots to win over the listener in the end. At the risk of contradicting the Crowns' own philosophy, if they truly "go with the flow," their next album could be transcendent.
The Amazing Crowns are scheduled to perform on Friday, June 30, at the Mason Jar, with the Road Kings. Showtime is 9 p.m.