Darth Vato’s Oh No, We’re Doing Great! 

www.darthvato.com 

By Ken Shimamoto 

The cover of this CD is very timely, what with the Phoenix landing on Mars the very week the disc drops. Hopefully it will fare better than the astronauts in the cover painting (by Troll from Salty Dog Tattoo, who also did the artwork for Shotgun Messenger’s recent eponymous CD), whose spaceship has crashed and are about to be greeted by the Red Planet’s insect-headed inhabitants. 

Six years into their trajectory as a band – where did the time go? – Darth Vato, the collegiate party boys of yesteryear, have matured into road-seasoned veterans, and there are several different levels of growth evident on this, their sophomore full length (they’ve also released a couple of EPs). 

Back in 2005, on the release of their last EP Seven Seas, I called the Vatos out in print (well, in a blog entry) for the disparity between the gangsta persona front Vato Kerry Dean adopted in songs like “Police Dub” and “FTW” and the man who was singing them – a high school math teacher who’s now a computer geek. The pose, it seemed to me at the time, bordered on minstrelsy. “When is this cat gonna drop the mask and start telling his own stories?” I asked.  

I had to shut my mouth when the lyrics from the second track on Oh No, We’re Doing Great!, “D’reetos,” zapped me right between the eyes: “Drop the needle, Paranoid side 2…Evil Dead 2 is always better when you’re high…We don’t get Irie, we just want to get stoned.” And the Vatos’ class war anthem from a couple years back, “War On the West Side,” which seemed a little over the top at the time, has become pretty topical in light of the gentrification and yuppification of the Fort. “We’re gonna burn your fuckin’ tower down,” I found myself singing this afternoon as I attempted to traverse the block around the old Wreck Room on foot. 

A key development since the last EP has been the emergence of bassist, FW Weekly scribe, and resident Cali punk Steve Steward as a songwriter. A couple of years ago, he jokingly told me, “Kerry writes all the major key ones and I write all the minor key ones,” but an examination of the liners to the new disc reveals that Steve had a hand in penning no fewer than ten out of 13 toons, five of them solo (including the two quoted above). Since their inception, the Vatos have drawn inspiration in equal measure from Black Uhuru, Black Flag, and Black Sabbath. It’s taken them until now to figure out how to integrate the reggae, punk, and heavy Rawk streams in their music seamlessly, but on Oh No…, they draw on them at will, shifting gears as the mood of the song demands. 

More to the point, Kerry Dean – who started out burying his live vocals under layers of F/X to the point where his lyrics were indecipherable – has grown into a compelling and effective frontman. He’s always had a conventionally “good” voice, but at times it almost seemed like he was ashamed of it, as though it were too smooth for the punk rock he teethed on. He sings with real heat and passion here, though, from the opening “Clocked Out” to the “hidden” acoustic solo cover of the Standells’ “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” (Steve said Kerry got it from Minor Threat, but I’m an old rock guy, so what the hell do I know from D.C. punks?), on which Kerry’s heartfelt performance reveals the universality of the sentiment expressed in “War On the West Side.” 

For longtime fans, fear not: there’s plenty of the Vatos’ trademark tongue-in-cheek silliness here – just check out “In With the Brew” (“Out with the old…”) and “Never Win, Always Complain”). The riddim team of Steward and drummer Eric Dodson (who’s now in a Police cover band with Big Mike Richardson, Matt Hembree, and Justin Pate) sounds as tough and taut as always, and new guitarist Josh Loewen (who also plays bass in Chatterton and scribes for the Weekly) helps fatten up the sound nicely. And in the middle, there’s a stunning departure, the reverb-heavy instrumental “Madness,” which rather than invoking the spirit of the Two Tone ‘80s Brit mugs features Daniel Hardaway, who elsewhere serves as a one-man Skatalites, layering muted and open trumpets over a dubwise groove. 

The Vatos break the seal on this one at Lola’s this Friday night, May 30th, fittingly sandwiched in between the mighty Me-Thinks and Pablo & the Hemphill 7. Nice job, fellas!