MC5 to Marvin Gaye to Carl Craig to The Archies is not necessarily a natural musical progression, but the Dirtbombs understand that consistency is the hobgoblin of small bands. Since forming in the early 1990s, the Detroit quintet has funneled decades of Motor City music into its revved-up garage rock. On 2001’s Ultraglide in Black, they roughed up Hitsville hits by Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, among others, and on 2011’s Party Store the band covered local techno songs by Cybotron and DJ Assault. Their catalog might come together to make some point or another about the cross-pollination of various strains of local music, but the Dirtbombs have proved too erratic to be merely academic. There doesn’t seem to be much of a thread from one album to the next, and without a game plan, they sound spontaneous rather than calculated: celebrating music rather than simply pontificating on it.
From Detroit techno to The Archies, however, is the farthest leap the Dirtbombs have made to date, and they don’t really stick the landing on their sixth album, Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-blooey! It’s not that The Archies are unworthy: in fact, the gang from Riverdale may be the most successful fictional pop act of all time (unless you count Hannah Montana, and let’s not). Climbing out of the frames of John L. Goldwater’s popular comic book, the group landed their very own animated show and scored a No. 1 smash with “Sugar, Sugar.” Enthusiastic and utterly harmless, they made the Partridge Family sound like Sabbath.
Almost every song on Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-blooey! tries to rewrite the sugar-rush metaphor of The Archies’ signature tune. Against bouncy guitar riffs and the defiantly chipper rhythms, frontman Mick Collins sings about bubblegum, cookies and other confections, to the point where it becomes as repetitive as a sheet of Candy Dots. But he doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to play the wholesome Archie or the leering Jughead, so the candy=sex equations sound strangely noncommittal: too prescribed to be sly, yet so persistent from one song to the next that they finally sound lewd (e.g., “We Come in the Sunshine”).
The Dirtbombs branch out a bit on the album-ending Sunshine Suite, which attempts to deconstruct The Archies’ cartoon-pop and pull it apart like taffy. “No More Rainy Days” unravels into an interlude of overcast synth drones and beeps, like a Flaming Lips fever dream. Combining the rigid structures of pop with the dissembling tangents of noise rock is an intriguing approach, yet by the time the Dirtbombs break into the first fanfare of “We Come in the Sunshine,” it’s clear they’ve not really arrived anywhere new. They’re right back where they started, playing another goofily exuberant ‘60s pop song. It’s a disappointing outcome, like the nausea that comes from eating a full bag of Skittles.