Sunday, April 4, 2010

muzzle of BTDT review...

By Pete Donahue

Since I latched on to their 2001 single “Whatever Happened to My Rock ‘n’ Roll (Punk Rock Song),” I’ve always held Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in high regard. I don’t own a motorcycle or a leather jacket, but when I listen to the band’s ragged amalgam of rock and roll, blues, americana and folk, I get a glimpse of what it must have been like to roll with Velvet Underground in Manhattan back in the late-60s. To have been right there with people like Lou Reed who helped shape rock and roll into the coolest kind of chic I can imagine, decked out in black leather jackets, heeled boots and sunglasses, regardless of what time it is.

For me, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are today’s embodiment of proper rock and roll. The kind carried with just the right amount of vintage swagger that doesn’t reek of hipster irony. There may be a long list of younger bands one could use to remind me that rock and roll hasn’t gone anywhere, but those bands haven’t come close to mastering the ability to make you fantasize about living in an era when rock and roll was just an insubordinate, snotty teenager who didn’t give a fuck if you liked it or not? The kind of rock and roll that lives on embedded in the tattered cement and bricks of cities like New York, Detroit, San Francisco and London.

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo is the sixth and latest LP by the band and is probably one of, if not their most complete record to date. And with over 10 years in the rock and roll rat race, B.R.M.C. have done so right in the face of some pretty unsettling events for a band. After a reluctance to license their music for commercial use (ahem, but “Spread Your Love” in a Miracle Whip commercial was a terrible idea, RCA), they were dropped by their major label – for the second time. With the departure of original drummer, Nick Jago, and a grueling tour schedule that eventually left the band without permanent addresses, some bands would call it a day. But if rock and roll is all you know, then you do the only thing you know how.

Recorded in a house/recording studio owned by The Cobbs in Philadelphia (making a record while squatting – very rock and roll), B.R.M.C. sound as if they’ve actually welcomed all the shitty things that’s happened to them over the last couple of years. From the first verse of the title-track that opens the album, it’s clear the band will be damned if you’re not going to listen up this time around: “Your body’s aching, every bone is breaking/Nothing seems to shake it, it just keeps holding on.” Sounding like a Wild West-meets eastern European gypsy death march, equal parts twangy acoustic guitar leads backed by fuzzy electric guitars and a maddening rhythmic stomp, the song sounds more like a band’s declaration of survival than lead single, but either way, it’s a proper way to start an album.

The up-tempo “Conscience Killer” impressively rings like a frenzied ensemble of buzzsaw guitars and thick, pounding drums, with bassist/vocalist Robert Levon Been and guitarist Peter Hayes trading blazing statements like “It don’t mean all that much, does it boy?/We never really had a choice” with a cocky snarl that almost dares any music industry bigwig to stand in their way. If the music industry machine was set on rolling over Black Rebel Cycle Club, to band shows two songs into their new album that they’re not interested in being just another major label casualty. It is equal parts furious, desperate and awesome.

Fans of the band’s stripped-down, Americana/folk Howl and Howl Session EP are not to be disappointed, either. As the band have eeked out a living effortlessly dabbling in various roots music genres, “The Toll” is a damned near perfect personal statement about life. Based around a sole acoustic guitar, Hayes takes the mic with an unsettling honesty, lamenting “Everything is taking its toll, it’s a moment we carry alone/With a cause there’s a cure for the soul, but, oh, everything is taking its toll.” The haggard sentiment is the tune of a guy giving it everything he’s got, and that’s something that no Pro-Tools plug-in or social networking marketing campaign can re-create, for this is very real. Alongside “The Sweetest Thing,” Hayes’ voice sounds as best as it ever has throughout the band’s career, even if his heart seems like it’s going through the worst.

On “Aya,” the band takes a sludgey, hypnotic jam approach, letting a minimalist drone of fuzz bass provide the foundation while new drummer Leah Shapiro wheels the song along over a seemingly rough terrain, letting no more than absolutely necessarily through in the verses before the exploding choruses. “Aya, we’re alone and there’s no room here anymore!” Been howls, as if it’s the last love song he’ll ever sing.

One of the best elements of Beat the Devil’s Tattoo is the band’s ability to take the slower, atmospheric songs like “Aya,” as well as 10-minute-plus album closer “Half-State,” and intertwine them among mid-tempo cuts like “Shadow’s Keeper” and “Bad Blood” without lessening the quieter moments like “Long Way Down.” The album has phenomenal balance, never wavering towards too loud or quiet, and never getting too caught up in the longer tracks. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has always displayed the cunning ability to take on various sonic avatars, and they’ve shown again the importance of flawless sequencing.

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo appeases every fan’s taste, an impressive feat considering the band often dabbles in more than one genre. The thick, distorted bass lines and furious, thunderous drums, soulful blues licks surrounded by massive walls of sound, and melancholy acoustic moments are all present. And then some. Considering all the rough times the band have endured lately, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club make it sound so damn good. With their backs seemingly against the wall, it’s as if the trio took those heavy odds stacked against them, thrown them onto the highway, and ran them over. And they probably did it on the way to the next gig.