Even giant inflatable phalluses can’t faze the new, contented, countrified Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
There are lots of miserable bastards in the world and most of them are musicians. As consistently proven by the likes of Lou Reed, Van Morrison and Mark E Smith, sunny social skills and the rock’n’roll dream are not always easy bedfellows. But in the year 2000, a fledgling Black Rebel Motorcycle Club took the art of being awkward to a whole new level. Having learnt the ins and outs of megalomaniacal rock star living from the very best – check out a young pre-frontman Peter Hayes’ cameo alongside legendary arsehole and Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe in fantastic rock ego exposé Dig! – Hayes plus big-haired, black-leathered bassist Robert Turner and beautiful drummer Nick Jago decided to take on the world. At first it all went marvellously to plan. Not only were the slim-fit gang of monosyllabic misanthropes suddenly the coolest, most moody band the ’00s had ever seen, but their stylish, self-titled debut was also one of the most wanted records of the year. Everyone loved them, leaving them to get on with the important task of hating absolutely everyone else. But under the potent fumes of so much loathing, the three members of BRMC accidentally turned their venom upon themselves. Unfortunately, the fall-outs also happened to coincide with stalling sales for their follow-up record ‘Take Them On, On Your Own’ (about as catchy as the title suggests) and public interest waning with every non-quote they made. With backstage barneys becoming increasingly regular, it looked like BRMC wouldn’t make it out of 2003 intact. In fact, it was the following summer when things finally came to a head. Upstaged by a giant inflatable penis during a signing session at the V Festival, Jago walked out. A few months later, so had their record company.
“Time won’t save our souls,” begins BRMC’s third album ‘Howl’ rather knowingly. Alongside their drummer (who only turned up in time to contribute on one of the album’s 13 tracks – ‘Promise’) it seems BRMC have also found their long lost sense of humour. Because as an opening line, “Time won’t save our souls” tells some blackly funny, dryly understated truths about life in the world’s most dysfunctional band. Y’see, time didn’t just fail to save BRMC, it pushed them out of a three-storey window marked ‘instant karma’ and straight onto a freeway labelled ‘difficult second album’, ‘troubling times ahead’ and ‘you lot still here?’.
What actually saved BRMC’s souls and career was the shedding of a lot of egos. Hayes and Turner had to forgive and forget Jago’s musical philandering; he in turn had to promise to stay off the sauce and remember to turn up to gigs on time. A new record label (this time Echo) had to be wooed and newly commissioned photoshoots met with smiles and good humour. Robert Turner, apparently so dedicated to dropping all former pretensions, has even decided to revert back to his (faintly ridiculous) real-life name Robert Levon Been. Equally significant is the choice of the album’s title. ‘Howl’, a reference to Frisco beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s best-known work, is – according to Levon Been – both a tribute to the hilly city’s artistic legacy and BRMC’s own roots there (they formed the band and lived together there until 1999, when they upped and left for the bright lights of LA). Back to basics is obviously an ongoing theme; if The White Stripes’ ‘Elephant’ seemed minimal for not employing a single piece of equipment invented after the ’60s, then BRMC have gone one further, rarely here using an idea thought up after 1959. Steeped in country, folk and gospel, ‘Howl’ is a primitive cry from the heart of a distant Americana. Where once The Jesus And Mary Chain’s surf-noise and early ’90s art-wave made up BRMC’s signature sound, it’s Johnny Cash and early Bob Dylan that now reign supreme.
Much of this change has been born out of necessity. Ever since their debut album first landed, BRMC have whispered about wanting to write a folk album, but it wasn’t until Jago started missing shows during the second record wilderness years that Hayes and Levon Been were forced to give impromptu unplugged performances, adding newly-penned acoustic numbers as a safety-net to their set. In fact, while the bulldozing guitars of ‘Take Them On…’ might have been a hiccup in the plan, the seeds of this quieter project have always been audible – right through from the occasional white noise let-ups on their debut album (check the acoustic outro to ‘White Palms’ and its unmistakable similarity to the fully-fledged ‘Sympathetic Noose’ here). Ironically though, it took the temporary breakdown of the band for BRMC to fully realise their long-term ambitions.
Of course there are more modern reference points to be uncovered on ‘Howl’, too – most obviously the spectre of hypno-rockers Spiritualized which stalks through the smacked-out organ and neo-psychedelia of the sublime title track. But from the deep-fried southern gothic feel of opener ‘Shuffle’ to the parting bars of head-rushing album closer ‘The Line’, ‘Howl’ is at its dark heart an homage to traditional American folk music. How Cali-bohemians with double-barrelled surnames can sound so convincingly like a wise and wizened, journey-wearied bunch of old folkers will remain a mystery, but BRMC manage to do so more than convincingly on ‘Devil’s Waitin’’ and again on the Dylan-influenced ‘Complicated Situation’.
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And though the change in volume might be ‘Howl’’s defining characteristic (though we still get powered-up burn-out on the fantastic bluegrass-punk of recent single ‘Ain’t No Easy Way’), it’s the shift in attitude that is its finest. Where BRMC were once blinkered in their influences and blustering in their lyrics, ‘Howl’ finds them both experimental (an autoharp, piano, trombone and timpani all feature alongside the usual guitar and harmonica) and reflective (“I’ve seen the battle and I’ve seen the war/ And the life I have here is the life I’ve been sold” – ‘Devil’s Waitin’’). Unsurprisingly, the most disappointing moments on this album are the ones where BRMC become an unimaginative tribute act to their new influences (see country-dirge ‘Still Suspicion Holds You Tight’ and the self-explanatory ‘Gospel Song’) and the most exciting where they whisk up everything they hold dear, both old and new ( ‘Ain’t No Easy Way’ and the Lennon-tinged piano anthem ‘Promise’), into something eerily beautiful.
Time could never have saved Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s souls, the state they were in. Luckily, the miserable bastards were able to save themselves.