The altercation between the Von Bondies' Jason Stollsteimer and the White Stripes' Jack White earned the Von Bondies some literally spectacular publicity -- and simultaneously broke and perpetuated the link between the band and its former friend and mentor. However, the group's Sire debut, Pawn Shoppe Heart, not only lives up to the bigger and brighter spotlight thrown upon them as a result of that incident, it also reveals that the Von Bondies are finding their own voice. Working with producer Jerry Harrison, they sound better on record than they ever have. Previously, Stollsteimer's throaty baritone often sounded muddy and tended to overshadow the band's playing. On Pawn Shoppe Heart, the crisp but not too-slick sound gives Stollsteimer's voice, and the rest of the group's instruments, room to breathe and resonate; the result is an album that helps set the Von Bondies apart from their contemporaries and rocks just as hard as their early work. That the Detroit garage rock mainstays sound more fully formed on an album recorded in San Francisco with one of alt-rock's biggest producers is somewhat ironic, but the results speak for themselves. The excellent, exhilarating single "C'Mon C'Mon" alone justifies the Von Bondies' jump to a major label and the attendant major recording budget: its quick-shifting dynamics, call-and-response vocals, and poppy sheen make it not only the best and most distinctive song the Von Bondies have yet recorded, but one of the best singles of 2004. In fact, "C'Mon C'Mon" is so good that it nearly dwarves the rest of Pawn Shoppe Heart, but the album does have several other nearly-as-good moments. "Not That Social," an icy-hot piece of punk-pop sung by bassist Carrie Smith, capitalizes on the Von Bondies' boy-girl vocal interplay, a trick that also adds some playful complexity to the otherwise primal "The Fever." "No Regrets" borrows T. Rex's stomping glam and gets the album off to an appropriately attention-getting start; "Poison Ivy" is a rush of lust that rescues Pawn Shoppe Heart from a slight slump in its second half. The Von Bondies find Detroit a hard place to escape even in song, and tracks like the in-jokey "Been Swank" (which riffs on the name of the Soledad Brothers' drummer, Ben Swank) and "Broken Man," which describes Stollsteimer and crew as "a broken band from a broken land," tend to pull the group back into the scenesterism that most of the album works so hard to escape. And when the band returns to the swampy, bluesy side of its music, Pawn Shoppe Heart becomes a hit-or-miss affair; tracks like "Right of Way" and "Crawl Through the Darkness" are big on power but relatively small on memorable melodies. On the other hand, the slow-burning "Mairead" doesn't quite justify its five-minute length but does make full use of Stollsteimer's powerful voice, and "Pawn Shoppe Heart" itself -- as well as the thundering cover of "Try a Little Tenderness" hidden at the end of the album -- shows that the band is still in touch with its roots. Ultimately, Pawn Shoppe Heart is a transitional album, offering an imperfect but real and exciting look at where the Von Bondies have been and where they are going. Most importantly for the band, the album shows that the Von Bondies are now able to succeed or fail on their own terms, outside of the context and constraints of Detroit's garage rock scene.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares