The Dwarves have always trafficked in all things tasteless, violent and scatological, their public personas somewhere between the rampaging psychopathy of GG Allin and the more performative shock-rock antics of Alice Cooper. But underneath all the album-cover nudity and bloody onstage antics, frontman Paul Cafaro (AKA Blag Dahlia) and his cohorts have been peddling a relatively meat-and-potatoes strain of punk rock since polishing off the scuzz of their early records with 1997’s The Dwarves Are Young And Good-Looking. Even their brief forays into hip-hop and industrial in the early 2000s amounted to little more than window dressing for a very straightforward sound – loud, crunchy power chords, speedy 4/4 rhythms and lyrics dealing almost exclusively with sex, drugs, violence, or some combination of the three.
The band’s latest offering, Take Back the Night, is a little grittier than its bubblegum-sweet predecessors Born Again and Invented Rock & Roll, a little more focused than Must Die, and about a thousand times less interesting than either Young and Good-Looking or Come Clean. It’s not a “bad” album by any means – Blag & co. play it too safe for this to be an outright failure – but too many of the tracks feel like they’re covering territory they’ve covered better dozens of times before. Sure, “Julio” is a catchy, upbeat pop-punk number, but “Salt Lake City,” “Better be Women” and “Everybody’s Girl” are all catchier. Sure, “City by the Bay” is breakneck, pissed-off melodic hardcore, but “I Will Deny,” “River City” and “Throw that World Away” are all faster and angrier.
Blag’s lyrics usually toe the line between hilariously transgressive and embarrassingly transgressive. Unfortunately, a few moments on here land squarely in the latter category, most notably “Here’s Looking at You,” which is about stalking a teenage girl (always a fun topic to hear a 50-year-old man singing about). Of course, expecting class out of a Dwarves record is a moot point, but lines like “I don’t need your mom’s permission for a nocturnal emission” are more likely to elicit a pained groan than a laugh or a shocked gasp. Luckily, closer “Trace Amounts” somewhat makes up for these missteps with a surprisingly empathetic account of the life and death of a naive young cokehead.
Shortcomings aside, Take Back the Night is a reasonably fun, snappy listen. Blag still has one of the best voices in punk – a sneering yelp that’s equal parts Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone – and wisely only cedes vocal duties to bassist/shrieker Rex Everything on a few songs. The title track is a mean slice of hard rawk that Mötorhead would be proud to call their own, and “Julio” and “Trace Amounts” prove once again that the only thing keeping these guys off mainstream rock radio is explicit lyrics. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s their shortest outing since Young and Good-Looking, breezing by in a scant 23 minutes.
While there are a handful of songs that do measure up to their best material, Take Back the Night may leave longtime fans yearning for the band’s 90s heyday. They’ve still got a bit of that old fire in their bellies, but there’s no getting around it – The Dwarves aren’t as young and good-looking as they used to be.