2000: “MONoSTEReo” (Tsar, Tsar)
I doubt very few people aside from those who saw Super back in 2010 have ever heard of Tsar. They streaked across the public consciousness for about fifteen minutes in the wake of their self-titled debut album in the summer of 2000, but that album remains one of my favorites from that decade. And its biggest selling point — or drawback, depending on how you look at it — is a complete and total assimilation of 70s glam and 80s New Wave into this strangely compelling hybrid that may not be shatteringly original, but is so damn listenable.
The first time I heard “MONoSTEReo,” I was standing in one of those soulless clothing purveyors like the Gap, where it came on as part of the ambient background attempt to sound hip. It caught my attention because it sounded different from the music that had been playing. It seemed so instantly familiar, like I must have heard it before at some point long ago and had just forgotten it. I was completely certain it was some obscure B-side by an 80s band I knew, somehow temporarily filling the Gap with a momentary coolness. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was a new song by this group I’d never heard of. One the one hand, it was somewhat comforting that I hadn’t missed this the first time around twenty years before, but now I had to track this song down in the wild, pre-Shazam days with only a few partially overhead lyrics to go by.
But I eventually found the song, and the album, and the whole thing was as if every glam rocker ever and the entire second British Invasion fell into the same vat the Joker did and out came this sprawling, loud, brassy batch of songs that wore its debts on its sleeve. Just listen to the guitar break near the middle of “MONoSTEReo” and tell me it doesn’t sound like it was pulled straight from Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. “Kathy Fong is the Bomb” and “I Don’t Wanna Break-Up” sound like something Sweet or the Bay City Rollers would have pulled off if they’d made into the MTV era, and you can’t call a song “Calling All Destroyers” and not expect us to think of KISS. And speaking of KISS, “Teen Wizards” starts off with a piano-backed intro reminiscent of “Beth” with some Mott the Hoople thrown in for good measure. It’s as brazen an act of wholesale lifting the likes of which wouldn’t be seen until Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia.” You can argue whether they’re stealing or paying homage, but whatever it is, damn if it doesn’t just work.
Tsar wouldn’t release another album for five years, and by then their sound had changed and it wasn’t that crazy melange that so intrigued me in the first place. Good for their development, I guess, but bad for my continued patronage. It was that retro sound that had hooked me; despite having moved into a new century, my ears were remained tuned to the past.