For decades now, general associations from outside of Tucson about what this town's musical exports sound like has been pithily summed up under the ridiculously vague, narrow and oversimplified term "desert rock." I don't know who originally coined it but it does have all the hallmarks of the overzealous British music press, whose interest in the face of a mostly collective 30-year yawn from these United States is nonetheless appreciated. (A notable exception is the mid-'90s semi-breakout sub-Nine Inch Nails act Machines of Loving Grace, whose ties to the local club scene is tenuous, to put it kindly. But that's for another day.)
By the time Machines had their spotlight moment, due to an inclusion on the soundtrack of the hit 1994 Brandon Lee film The Crow, desert rock as a term and a genre of watered-down alt-country married to the watered-down post-grunge popular in mainstream alternative rock circles at the time was peaking locally and nationally as a viable style, mostly due to the national and international success of Phoenix's Gin Blossoms and Refreshments and, earlier, Tucson's Sidewinders and Sand Rubies. While these Arizona bands skipped boring roots-music trappings and stuck with an updated palatable form of power pop, by the new millennium, desert rock was creatively exhausted. Local bands started to namecheck desert rock mostly to declare that they were decidedly not part of that lineage.
A surprising thing then occurred in 2014 or so: young and local underground rock 'n' roll acts, who just prior to that time would've pledged their allegiance to garage and psychedelic rock began advertising themselves as desert rock without a trace of irony or smirk, perhaps unaware of the connection to local desert-rock figureheads Greyhound Soul, who had little in common with this new crop of bands.
One of the most distinctive of the new bunch even called themselves the Desert Beats, even though that name could easily be confused for a weekend event round-up column in a Southwestern U.S. newspaper circular.
The Desert Beats, comprised mostly of singer and songwriter Randall Dempsey and a rotating cast of supporting musicians, or as he likes to phrase it, "friends," released a self-titled debut album on Baby Tooth Records back in January and an accompanying video in the last couple of weeks. Both are very good, if not straight-up great.
The album is consistently fantastic, with a captivating architecture of sound that actually belies its Tucson origins (although Dempsey is originally from Phoenix) with manic energy, sharp songs and tons of confidence, the latter of which really lends the record an almost transcendent infectiousness, a trait usually in short supply on local debut albums.
Dempsey's songs and style have a pleasantly surprising connection to certain stripped down new wave era rock bands, with old-wave dance beats, rabid vocals and blurred echoing guitars. But it's those vocals—haunted and screaming—that lend the whole package weight and a line back to the likes of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The Desert Beats might even, gasp, bring desert rock back to its former glory.
See Desert Beats on Thursday, March 9, 9 p.m., at Skybar, 536 N. 4th Avenue.