Rock, like design, can aspire to many things. It can be dazzlingly radical, like Frank Gehry’s architecture. It can be shamelessly retro, like those pricey faux diner clocks at Restoration Hardware. And sometimes it can be formalist and purely functional, like an Ikea coffee table. One aesthetic isn’t necessarily better than the other. They simply serve different ends.
The Raveonettes’ Chain Gang of Love falls into the last camp, joining the Strokes and other back-to-basics rock acts looking to counter pop’s baroque excess. Being Scandinavian and all, the Raveonettes take their formalism seriously; file them under Danish Modern. Their debut EP, 2001’s stinging ”Whip It On,” was a collection of songs written exclusively in B flat minor, a rather dark key Sonic Youth have been known to hover around. No song was allowed more than three chords, nor could it pass the three-minute mark – pop’s original gold standard. And yet the 21-minute set was diverse and almost never flagged. The cozy Everly Brothers harmonies of coconspirators Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo rode ’50s rock drumbeats through a biblical hailstorm of guitars, with their amps and trench coat collars turned all the way up. As soon as it ended, you wanted to hear it again.
Chain Gang of Love flips the rules a bit. The 12-song CD was recorded entirely in B flat major, and the vibe is noticeably less menacing. A couple of tracks even last longer than three minutes, and electronic drums sometimes surface amid the tom-toms and tambourines. Instead of song titles like ”Attack of the Ghost Riders” and ”Bowels of the Beast,” you get ”That Great Love Sound,” ”New York Was Great,” and ”The Love Gang.” But just as on the duo’s debut, the beauty is in the album’s concision and seamlessness. It’s also in the inspired use of rock signposts, like the bright, skipping guitar riff – mirroring the signature from Buddy Holly’s ”Words of Love” – placed in what sounds like the turbine of a revving jetliner. Or the lyrics to the anthemic ”Let’s Rave On,” as perfect a reveille for rock debauchery as one could want: ”Let’s make out ‘cause you know you want it/Let’s go down where the hearts are broken/Fix them all in time.”
None of these strategies is especially new: Punk papas the Ramones and (most notably) U.K. pop-noisemongers the Jesus and Mary Chain refined the blueprints long ago. And as those bands found, formalism is by definition limiting, and over time it brings the risk of tedium. Plus, what will the Raveonettes do when they run out of keys? No matter; at the moment, they make sonic furnishings that do their job admirably, brightening everything around them.