Monday, April 8, 2013

Pitchfork 'Specter At The Feast' review...

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s career hasn’t exactly been distinguished, but it has been long, and at some point you simply can’t argue with longevity. Routinely dismissed as derivative mope rockers subsisting on the least interesting scraps of warmed-over Ride, Stones, and Brian Jonestown Massacre records, BRMC make music as predictable as their look: black shirt, black leather jacket, black shades, pouty lips, downturned heads. What started out as a pose is now baked in; BRMC may lack the pedigree of a legacy rock band, but they certainly have the mileage.

On the group’s sixth studio effort, Specter at the Feast, BRMC make the transition from classic-rock pretenders to full-on classic rock. At this point, grizzled weariness comes naturally to the San Francisco trio. Like fellow trad-rock true believers the Black Crowes, Oasis, and Marah, BRMC have co-opted another era long enough that they actually seem like they’ve been around forever. For better or worse, you know what you’re going to get from a BRMC record, and that sort of brand engenders loyalty, no matter the latest fashion.

The downside of sticking around is that profound loss inevitably rears its head; for BRMC, this sad eventuality occurred in 2010, when the band’s producer and sound technician (and father to bassist Robert Levon Been) Michael Been died from a heart attack in the middle of a tour. Specter at the Feast was made in tribute to Been-- a journeyman rocker himself who fronted 80s AOR band the Call, whose populist anthem “Let the Day Begin” is probably spinning on some classic-rock station this very moment, between “Hot Blooded” and “Twilight Zone”. BRMC’s covers “Let the Day Begin” on Specter, and while it doesn’t quite fit with the band’s usual blacklit gloominess, it does square with their stubborn survivalist instinct. So long as there’s an audience for meat-and-potatoes rock songs like “Let the Day Begin”, there will be bands like BRMC.

If only BRMC’s “rock” songs lived up to their rock attitude. The central weakness of Specter at the Feast is rather inexplicable: Its goodness is inversely proportional to its loudness. Given the record’s somber inspiration, it’s understandable that the best tracks are the ballads. “Lullaby” is all heart-tugging jangle and dreamily descending guitar riffs, sparkling with the mournful beauty of a last encounter. On the haunted-house blues “Some Kind of Ghost”, Robert Been whispers, “Sweet lord, I’m coming home for good” over a funereal church organ. The valedictory vibe is even more pronounced on “Lose Yourself”, an exquisite symphony of sap that evokes the final minute of “With or Without You” as directed by Cameron Crowe.

The obviousness of Specter is forgivable on these songs; even the record’s de rigueur Spiritualized rip-off, “Sometimes the Light”, carries the weight of real grief. Where the record falters is on the rockers, which are composed of clich├ęs and exhausted riffs only. The record’s saggy middle section is absolutely murder in this regard: The rubbery basslines, brassy cock-rock guitars and needlessly repetitive choruses of “Hate the Taste” and “Rival” are autopilot junk that pad what should be an intimate record with cavernous emptiness. (Specter supposedly was a planned double-LP; it really should be an EP.) What hurts Specter ultimately is that this band can’t get out of its own way. The requirements of making another rockin’ BRMC album choke what could’ve been an affecting, low-key detour. BRMC has experience on its side; if only it also had a little wisdom to share.