It’s early in the afternoon, and The Dirty Hooks are nestled into the back couches at Yayo Taco. They’ve never been here before. Not to eat the incredible tacos, which two of them are doing right now. Not when drummer Jenine Cali was in The Day After, and not when singer Bobby McCall and guitarist Anthony Ratto III were in Ill Figures. This is a new experience. Which, really, describes Dirty Hooks to a T.
Digging into carne asada and pollo, McCall and Ratto describe the first Hooks show. It was smoky. They don’t say that but you have to assume any show at Money Plays is probably smoky. Just like you have to assume it won’t take much to make the West Flamingo hole-in-the-wall look crowded, or that, given all three of the members haven’t played in gigging bands for a couple years, that crowd would be made of old friends and fans of their earlier work. That work being the ’90s alt-rock, female-fronted, Foo Fighters vibe of Cali’s The Day After, and the reggae-punk, metal-tipped, 311 sound of Ill Figures.
And besides Cali’s former band being, at one point, signed to Gotham Records in New York (“Having distribution was super cool, but we got out of it and lesson learned”), and being aware both of these bands were considered stars of the scene in the early aughts, you’re pretty caught up. And with that comes the whole “new experience totally describing the new band” thing. The Dirty Hooks have exactly one show under their belt. And one full-length album, Electric Grit. The former was to celebrate the release of the latter, which the trio worked on for a year and a half — half a year after becoming a band at all. And the result is an album so comfortable it should belong on the discography of a band with substantially more rings in its trunk, not some musical toddler.
“We wanted to record an album before playing any shows,” McCall says, coming to the end of some particularly sloppy carne asada. “Our old bands, we just played a ton of shows all the time. We wanted this to be different.”
And it is. Mostly because it’s good, and hasn’t been not-good in its entire existence. You could even say great, depending on your speakers and your opinion of gritty electric guitar music. If we’re talking literally and sonically, it probably sounds good because it was mixed down by Kane (son of Kevin) Churko at The Hideout. “I think Kane probably wanted to punch me in the face,” McCall says, mostly kidding. “He mixed the first song and it sounded very dancy and bassy, like his band [Modern Science]. I was like, I dig it but it’s not dirty or rock. I think he knew what we were going for after a few sessions.”
They’ll tell you the best song is “Dancing with a Train” (“dancin’ with a train/you’re gonna lose a leg now, honey”), in which hi-hats sound like steam-engine valve gear, and The Raconteurs come to mind a little more than fleetingly. But they aren’t giving themselves enough credit. “Moonshine Hustle” might be the favorite from this side of the keyboard. It takes what The Zombies did in the ’60s and makes it suitable for today’s tough cuss in a way that feels both bare-knuckled and remarkably erotic. You know, sex rock.
Maybe that’s another difference. On average leaning closer to their 40s than 30s, The Dirty Hooks still make surprisingly powerful, energetic music tailored for younger bucks, but written much smarter than said bucks, even those aided by a thesaurus and a compendium of lead sheets from all the best rock, country and blues songs in the last 50 years. Some of the stories come from McCall’s life experiences. Some come from things that could’ve become life experiences if he would’ve walked down a different block or did a bunch of heroin. Others are complete fabrications. But it doesn’t keep McCall from feeling it where it counts. “We’re storytellers,” he says. “It’s like The Beatles singing about Eleanor Rigby. It’s just the ultimate form of expression.”
McCall’s still figuring out how that expression is different these days. After all, the local music scene isn’t what it was in the early 2000s. He talks about the days playing The Boston. He can’t compare it to anything else in town, and neither can Cali or Ratto. But contrary to the solace of familiarity you’d expect, The Dirty Hooks are excited about playing outside their comfort zone. And seeing and hearing that excitement unhampered by jaded coolness is a new experience for anyone who ever writes about local bands. The Dirty Hooks want to play shows with the new bands they’ve kept occasional tabs on, the ones a decade their minor. The want The Griffins, The Beauty Bars. They want the downtown scene. And they’ll get it. They’re just that good.