Perfect Sound Forever

Black Rebel Motorcylce Club

American X Factors
by Jeffrey Thiessen
(December 2008)

It's tough to adequately describe the journey Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has taken me on. Difficult by description, though it's one that I'm quite certain many can identify with. You know how the story goes... you check out a band that just released their debut album, you dig that album, follow their career with great interest, observe them being exposed to the masses, and then just as you think they are truly hitting their stride, what happens? They come to the public, and the public spits on them. Any long-time fan of Stone Temple Pilots can truly identify with this, but so can Prong fans, and MC5 followers back in the day. Nothing new here.

It's also truly a yin/yang thing, as it's sorta nice to have them mostly to yourself, especially since you followed them from the womb and you're totally willing to follow them into the tomb. This creates sort of a relationship between you and the band, at least on a superficial level, and feels like this is a slightly more personal liaison that most likely wouldn't have existed if you just picked up on them now, or if a ton of other people also owned their album.

So yeah, you tend to take it personal when they get shit on, and why wouldn't you? This is my perpetual struggle with The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I love how nobody else really likes them, but I also don't understand their logic for doing so, and that frustrates me to no end. What does that leave me with? Well, a vicious fucking cycle that begins and ends with that famous John Lydon quote at the famous 'last' Sex Pistols show: "Ever feel like you've been cheated?'

In this case, everybody feels like they've been cheated. The band (thinking they shouldn't have to be constantly defending their sound), their fans (wondering why the band constantly has to defend their sound), and the sceptics (annoyed that a group like this takes up so much space on those goddamn message boards).

All of this is truly a shame when it comes to BRMC, because really, they'd prefer not to be involved in any of that shit. What's truly baffling is this band isn't a divisive one- it's a goddamn rock n' roll band in the most pure sense of the term, so how come the Mekons can get away with that and BRMC get hung out to dry?

It's not fair, and maybe that's what continually drives them to make records superior to the one prior to it, but to be honest I don't really give a shit how they do it, the fact is they do continually make albums that up the ante, and let's be clear, they didn't have to reinvent the wheel to get this done. You won't find any gimmicks on a BRMC album. Guitar. Drums. Vocals. Song better than the one you just heard. This is the dynamic of this band, and if all of this sounds refreshing in this glacial age of Pro Tools and Ableton bailing out creatively stagnant bands, then you really must check out BRMC. It may be late, but at least it's not never.

In terms of debut albums, I dare you to find an opening three-song set that matches the eminence and ferocious swagger of the first three on BRMC's first self-titled record. Sure, there are tri-fectas that could definitely stack up to "Love Burns," "Red Eyes and Tears," and "Whatever Happened To My Rock N' Roll (Punk Song)," but I very much doubt you could find such an example in the ‘garage movement' they are so often unfairly lumped in with (they are much too emotionally and sonically complex for such a label). The rest of the first album holds serve, but the centerpiece here is certainly "Rifles," a haunting, shimmering offering that has vocalist Robert Hayes muttering, "She... took my heart and soul away," and while this sort of sappy preening might be unbearable from, say, sanctimonious folkster Surfjan Stevens, here it's the sound of a man with a broken heart, who is not afraid to rock, hard. Shit, he's not only unafraid to do so, the rest of his band routinely refuses to settle for anything less.

Maybe it's a good thing that the eponymous debut didn't sell a lot of copies, as it didn't set up BRMC for that notorious sophomore flop. Instead, we have Take Them On, On Your Own, a rampaging, and more importantly, extremely deliberately paced album that may be cloaked in chaos, but upon a close listen, the damage is negotiable, and while everything is in disrepair, the train is slowing down, allowing us a chance to at least look around and try to make something of the dissonance. It's possible, but likely not with the first listen.

If Take Them On, On Your Own was White Light/White Heat (though without the brutally brilliant inventiveness), then Howl is their version of the Velvet's self-titled third album to their magnum speed opus. Everything is slowed from a blur, to a crawl. Not all tracks work here, as singing about Jesus doesn't all of a sudden make you spiritual ("Gospel Song" starts off promising enough before falling flat on it's noble/ostentatious aspirations) and "Ain't No Easy Way" sounds like a lame Black Keys b-side, but these shortcomings are more forgiving when you consider their sudden departure in sound, and the fact that it boasts two of their strongest songs to date. "Promise" boasts a gorgeous, hushed circus organ that nearly redeems the rest of the album's missteps. It doesn't though. That is left to the closing track, "The Line," which relentlessly threatens to fade into dust, but lingers on until we're left with nothing but thin air and the spun-out thought that everything now makes sense. Or nothing does. Destruction as a form of creation folks, what all the best closing tracks are made of. The acoustic-based sound is obviously an enormous departure, and over and over Howl threatens to collapse under the weight of its own ambitions, but BRMC always finds a way to hold it all together, and not by sacrificing any crucial component of the band's core identity.

But then it got even better. Baby 81, their most recent studio album released in May 2007, is by leaps and bounds their most consistent overall effort. Even for a long-time fan, this fourth record is so astronomically amazing that it truly is a wonder that the band isn't a household name by now, and I'm starting to think we have a bit of a case of self-fulfilling prophecy here.

That's just one theory. Another theory is they're just not that good? But you won't find any evidence of that from this me, or from 98% of their music either. In cases like this, it's best not to analyze why something isn't, and just blast the fuck out of the music because of what it is. That way, everybody wins.

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