A few years back, when the Mighty Mighty Bosstones appeared on the KISS tribute record, Kiss My Ass, the pairing seemed so incongruous as to be slightly silly. Their cover of "Detroit Rock City" worked all right, with horns amusingly taking the place of Ace Frehley's justifiably famous, haunting guitar solo, but nevertheless it felt like a bit of a gimmick and bred the suspicion that the Bosstones only made the cut because they were at the time labelmates (on Mercury) with KISS. As the Bosstones' newest disc, Pay Attention, starts to spin, though, the connection becomes a bit more explicit. A cocktail-jazz beat begins, and party noises--conversations, laughter--filter in, setting the atmosphere filmically, just as KISS did when "Detroit Rock City" opened their best record, Destroyer, in the '70s. The cocktail-party feel continues, then the band snaps into action with power chords and driving drums, and by the time singer Dicky Barrett snarls the title/chorus of the tune, "Let Me Be," a truth comes clear: When he wants to, Barrett can sound like a dragon rudely awakened from a sound slumber, and he comes off like even more of a raging thunder lizard than Gene Simmons these days.When he wants to, that is. One of the great and most satisfying surprises on Pay Attention is that Barrett seems to have actually learned how to sing. Maybe he cut down on what must be a 17-pack-a-day habit for the sessions, or maybe it's some type of sophisticated studio trickery, but whatever the reason, Barrett's growth as a vocalist is truly impressive. Also truly impressive is the Boston band's new confidence as songwriters. Sure, there are a few naked attempts to replicate the magic that made 1997's "Impression That I Get" a breakthrough smash ("The Skeleton Song" and "So Sad to Say" both fall into this category), but it's hard to blame a band for that. Besides, such shameless calculations are more than made up for by tracks like "Riot on Broad Street," with a martial snare and pennywhistle that evoke ghosts of the Revolutionary War; "Bad News and Bad Breaks," which sums up Barrett's worldview with the words "There's always something that can set you back/That's the way life is"; and most of all, the heartbreaking closing song, "The Day He Didn't Die" ("I really miss him/he would have loved this/I hope he can hear me"). Pay Attention is often just as blunt as its title, and, as the record rolls along, that command is pretty damned impossible to ignore.
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