Craig Extine could, somewhat reasonably, be compared to the following singers: Spencer Krug from Wolf Parade, Jack White, and Tom Verlaine from Television. But to boil his beautifully ugly (that’s not a contradiction, motherfucker, it’s a thing – see Mr. Tom Waits if you doubt me) voice down to mere imitation would be disingenuous to say the least. Extine lends a world-weary howl to Poisonous Times, the latest effort from his band The Old Haunts. While his fellow Old Haunts (including relatively New Haunt and former Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail) bash out this trippy-ass mixture of Marc Ribot, Dick Dale, and – yes – Television, Extine’s voice roars, howls, yelps, and shouts a sometimes downright angry (“Volatile”) and sometimes cautiously optimistic (“Sunshine”) lyric out into the big ol’ world. The effect is an album with an edgy, paranoid vibe that is hooky enough to please fans of simple rock songs (for the record: “simple rock songs” here refers to things like “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges, not, say, Nickelback. Just so we’re clear about the comparison here.).
The Old Haunts pretty much piss indie-cred: they’re on Kill Rock Stars, they have a former Bikini Kill member (here’s a test: ask your local Dave Matthews, Blink-182, or My Chemical Romance fan if they’ve heard of Bikini Kill. They haven’t.), and they only play independent venues on their tours, which are, I’m told, lengthy and satisfying. A band so stalwartly independent might come across as super-serious, their music a perfectly coordinated noise of general disapproval with The Way Things Are. The Old Haunts, on the other hand, are a fun-as-fuck listen and less a dour, downer band than something Craig Finn might call “a sexy mess.”
The songs on Poisonous Times, starting with album opener “Volatile,” are all piss and vinegar, Extine’s wounded-dog snarl coming straight at you over bouncy, sloppy (in a good way) bass, drums, and guitar. The afore-mentioned Ms. Vail keeps the beat like clockwork while the guitar and bass bounce around jauntily from start to finish. There’s a definite punk spirit in this music, even if it sounds more like it came from someone smashing a stereo playing Dick Dale into a stereo playing a dogfight. Vail is the latest in a long line of drummers for the band, but she’s earned some tenure on Poisonous Times.
Though the whole album provides for an excellent listening experience (assuming you dig Extine’s voice, which will be a deal-breaker for some people), the two stand-out tracks are “Hurricane Eyes,” and “Sunshine.” “Hurricane Eyes,” is probably what the Rolling Stones always should have sounded like and probably never really did. It’s basically a pop song, but the squirrelly guitar lick in the intro sets up the catchiest chorus on Poisonous Times, which cannot be described but must be heard. It’s fucking awesome, trust me. “Sunshine,” is a little break in the overall angsty feel of the album, a little ode to the mass of incandescent gas around which our little globe orbits. It’s almost like a Velvet Underground song but Extine never manages to be as pretty as Lou Reed or John Cale would’ve been on the same tune. That’s a good thing, though – Extine’s voice and the tendency that he has to sneer most of his lyrics are the two things that really keep The Old Haunts from being a more run-of-the mill rock band. I can barely understand the lyrics on this album, but I get what he’s saying. And he’s backed by some seriously genre-hopping musicians that make Poisonous Times a really rewarding listen for people who are keen on Marc Ribot guitar solos. Lester Bangs often lamented, over the many years he was writing, the disappearance of really primal rock bands (though he was later turned on, and rightly so, by bands like the Clash who were, if not necessarily primal, fucking enthusiastic and bombastically loud). I’d like to think he’d put his cough syrup-addled stamp of approval on The Old Haunts.