Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pitchfork album review...

As rock traditionalists go, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were a little bit ahead of their time. Sure, the California leather jacketers came up a few years after the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre, and more or less alongside Detroit garage-rockers like the White Stripes. But 2001 debut B.R.M.C. loudly heralded the rock-is-back swagger that would soon hit glossy magazines in the form of the Strokes, the Vines, and the Hives. As if that weren't enough, BRMC's stratosphere-pummel predicted not only the Jesus and Mary Chain reunion, the Magnetic Fields' Distortion, and A Place to Bury Strangers, but also last year's Verve-scale electro-shoegaze anthems by the Big Pink.

Here in the future, though, the sneering young dudes who once asked "Whatever Happened to My Rock'n'Roll" now bear all the telltale signs of a band desperately flailing to live up to the dangerousness of their band name. In 2005, that meant divisive folk-blues change-up Howl. In 2008, it meant not-even-divisive insomniac-wank instrumental album The Effects of 333. Sixth studio outing Beat the Devil's Tattoo is already getting billed as the one that brings all these prodigal sons' (and daughters'-- ex-Raveonette Leah Shapiro is now on drums) stylistic detours back home. It kind of is, but if BRMC's sound has cohered, their songwriting has unfortunately done the opposite.

So yeah, Beat the Devil's Tattoo assembles BRMC's full arsenal of swamp-stomp riffage, chain-gang acoustic blues, rawk-Spiritualized psych-gospel, endlessly repeated gothic nonsense, and effects-geek pedal farts. And no, of course, originality isn't necessarily a prerequisite for rock'n'roll fun times. So if someone apathetically intoning about whether he wants to "feel love" on a midtempo Velvet Underground guttersnipe castoff called "Evol" (yup) is enough to make you remember that, oh my gosh, you wanna feel love, then who am I to argue? Plus BRMC can sound surprisingly pretty when finding the tear in Ryan Adams' blandly folksy beer ("The Toll", "Sweet Feeling"); in a Grand Funk/Free way, their bluesy proto-punk jams ("Conscience Killer", "Shadow's Keeper") or mythological T. Rex boogie ("River Styx") can be mookishly satisfying-- big dumb fun.

There's a fine line, however, between "big dumb fun" and "insulting your intelligence." The Ride-like whooshes of "Mama Taught Me Better" (main lyric: "It brings me down"), are one thing, but finale "Half State" stretches the 1990s neopsych pedal play to an utterly excruciating 10 minutes. Witchy-woman screamer "Aya" and vaguely political lurcher "War Machine" feel like they were probably already somewhere in this band's catalog. And there's little fun for anyone, dumb or otherwise, on piano-pop comedown "Long Way Down". Besides, BRMC already had a release that brings together all their disparate elements: last year's solid, strobe-lit DVD/CD package Live, which actually has some memorable songs. Chalk it up to another case of being ahead of their time.
Marc Hogan, March 10, 2010