Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Baby 81
BRMC return to remind us why we fell for them in the first place
It’s beyond strange to think now, but there was a time when Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were considered, in some circles, even cooler than The Strokes. Of all the class of 2001, Julian and co’s West Coast counterpoints were seen as the boys most likely to follow them the whole way. Armed with a debut album of devilish psychedelic garage and unsullied by finishing school, the future looked like being theirs. Until, that is, a lacklustre second album (‘Take Them On, On Your Own’), a surly demeanor and simmering band tensions conspired to derail them. In the end, all it took was an inflatable penis presented to them by a fan at NME’s V2004 signing tent to send them into meltdown.
They stayed together, just, but this was a changed band. Their reaction was to rip everything apart, removing all traces of the troubled riders they had become. Out went the dark heart, the motorcycle exhaust, the death-engine guitars and roaring political rage. Instead, ‘Howl’ – a wire-stringed collection of folk songs – slammed the breaks just in time to stop the band careering straight off dead man’s curve. But what stops you getting killed doesn’t necessarily make you stronger and the Black Rebel of ‘Howl’ was not the same beast which forced Britain to kneel before their 501s, unkempt hair and murder aesthetic back when The Horrors were anxiously fumbling with the cold bra strap of their first dead girlfriend.
If ‘Howl’ was the righteous path they had to burn in order to save their souls, then ‘Baby 81’ sees them roaring back on to the dusty trail they once blazed across the alt.rock landscape. In many ways it’s the natural follow-up to their magnificent debut. It might never approach the acid-burnout frenzy of ‘Love Burns’ or the smack-rage of ‘What Ever Happened To My Rock And Roll (Punk Song)’, but just look at the track names: ‘Killing The Light’, ‘American X’, ‘666 Conducer’. This is a band firmly recapturing their edge.
“I took out a loan on my empty heart babe/I took out a lone on my lonely soul”, snarls Robert Levon Been, as greasy guitars chug into dazed action on opener ‘Took Out A Loan’. Yes, these brothers may have survived, but the blues hangs over them like fitted leathers. “Suicide’s easy, what happened to the revolution?”, growls ‘Berlin’ – a death machine charged on the electricity from a coke orgy with The Kills – before the glorious single ‘Weapon Of Choice’ roars into view.
However, while BRMC have been pulling themselves up from Hades’ pits, they’ve somehow acquired something else. It seems that these boys have aspirations extending far beyond being the fashion corpses that we fell in love with. Yep, these guys have, whisper it, pop ambitions as well. Somehow, both the taut ‘It’s Not What You Wanted’ and the Arcade Fire-aping lush organ grinder ‘All You Do Is Talk’ both manage to sound just like ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ by The Killers. Elsewhere, acoustic guitars lurk beneath the familiar sonic juggernauts and ‘666 Conducer’ is a hyper-powered version of the rattlesnake odes of their last record. Broader still, ‘Window’ is practically Oasis-like. From the staccato Beatles pianos, ’60s guitar solos and, frankly, banal lyrics – “How’s it going to feel/When you don’t know what’s real?” – in some bizarre, alternative reality recording session, a diesel-chugging Noel Gallagher could have crowbarred this into ‘Heathen Chemistry’. Things are pushed far too far, however, on ‘American X’. BRMC please note, we celebrate your return to fuzzy necro-indie, but that doesn’t mean you need to drag it out for nine frigging minutes, let alone conduct the spirit of Doors keyboard wally Ray Manzarek while you stumble aimlessly into a void of dull, never-ending solos.
Never mind, it’s not all reimagination, ‘Need Some Air’ is a breathlessly evil disco of rusted Mary Chain cogs whirling through tar-thick clouds of sleazy-fingered moshers. ‘Killing The Light’ croons in crooked skeletal falsetto, while final track ‘Am I Only’ is just incendiary. Like Pixies sucking meths through the gaps in their war-wounded smiles, “Am I only/Only one of you?”, asks Peter Hayes sadly, as his acoustics are drowned beneath the epic grind of atomic post-rock guitar walls.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have used up more than their share of rock lives over the years, but amazingly, after dipping so far from the radar, they have clawed their way back with an album encapsulating much of what initially made them such an exciting group. It’s a final farewell to the decadence and degradations of the past, and it should take more than an inflated phallus to stop them this time.