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Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Methodrone

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: METHODRONE (1995)

1) Evergreen; 2) Wisdom; 3) Crushed; 4) That Girl Suicide; 5) Wasted; 6) Everyone Says; 7) She Made Me; 8) Hyperventilation; 9) Records; 10) I Love You; 11) End Of The Day; 12) Outback; 13) She's Gone; 14) Methodrone.

«Not to be confused with mephedrone or methedrone», the current edition of the Wikipedia article prudently warns us, and you'd better heed that warning when you walk into any of the music stores that still remain in your neighborhood unless you have nothing against accidentally getting the heat on you. Actually, the album title is very smart — because formally, all you can say is that it is a combination of "method" and "drone", without any direct allusions to any heavy chemical substances. And indeed, there's lots of droning here, and there most certainly is a method: Anton Newcombe is one of those dangerous guys with conceptual ideas in their heads who often force you to «respect» them even if you are emotionally inclined to hate them and everything they stand for.

My major beef with Newcombe's ideology, however, is not the way he conceives or plays his songs, but his insistence on having us endure so many of them. Almost all of these early BJM albums are insufferably long — of course, they were made at the height of the CD era, when many people seriously thought that LPs now should run up to 70 minutes by default just because their main physical medium allows them to, but in Newcombe's case, I believe, we also have to deal with additional egomania. (Oh, technically the songs are credited to the band as a whole, and apparently Matt Hollywood, the bass player and occasional vocalist, was also very much involved in the creative process, but not quite enough to offer a distinct second identity.)

Methodrone, the BJM's proper official debut LP, is a perfect illustration: 71 minutes of music that should have been pared down to at most 40. Newcombe's formula is mostly the same for all these songs — slow, repetitive, melodically minimalistic, trance-oriented guitar grooves — and this makes the better realized ones get dissolved and camouflaged in the context of the inferior material, so much so that even after three or four listens, I still have memories of Methodrone as a «collective substance», a species of musical earpaste, rather than a set of songs where I could value the musical merits of each separate one. Which is not necessarily bad, but I would probably prefer a 40-minute tube of earpaste than this Jumbo package. Not being an elephant and all.

The departure from Spacegirl is felt here largely through improved production (as the band was now affiliated with a real indie record label, Bomp! Records, and had a couple of real producers working with them) and the lack of particularly childish material like that "let me love you" bit from ʽSpacegirlʼ itself. Other than that, the album is still answering the same question: "What would have happened if Brian Jones had lived right into the era of the Stone Roses and the early shoegazers?" Wait, scratch that. Not «Brian Jones», really, who wasn't much of a composer or musical ideologue, but «Roky Erickson» — if we have to choose one single figure that could be defined as the grandaddy of the BJM sound circa 1995, that'd be The 13th Floor Elevators with their garage-drone approach to exploding your subconscious. Take one listen to the ten swirling minutes of ʽHyperventilationʼ and you will find all the ingredients, with the notable exception of the electric jug, perhaps, but that would make it just too obvious.

The best song here is probably still ʽCrushedʼ, re-recorded in a much cleaner version and featu­ring an even more suicidal, Robert Smith-influenced vocal from Newcombe. (ʽThat Girl Suicideʼ  also makes a repeat appearance, but, despite the title, it sounds much less suicidal than ʽCrushedʼ: the rotating-girating Stonesy pop riff and the falsetto ooh-oohs give it the aura of a confused psychedelic carnival). As for the new songs, they should probably be categorized depending on whether they lean more to the funky Madchester side (not often here, but ʽWisdomʼ is probably at least one such song) or to the «folk drone» side (the majority of the tracks) or to the «random noise» side (like ʽRecordsʼ, which just sounds like a lot of different tape shit slowed down and played backwards). The «folk drones», in turn, can be spooky, or romantic, or spooky and roman­tic — Anton Newcombe is probably not a guy you'd want to go out with (at least, not without the cover of an entire drug squad not further than fifty feet away) — but what ties them all together is that each song is basically one idea, exposed to you right away and luring you with the promise of a mighty crescendo that rarely, if ever, comes to pass.

For instance, ʽI Love Youʼ is just about as straightforward as its title — two chords, one vocal line, steady percussion, light magical chimes, four minutes of monotonous serenading. Were this written circa 1966, the basic sequence might have been used by any band as a brief intro to a real song. Thirty years later, we are being implicitly told that the key to real (or, at least, modern) psychedelia is repetition, and that two chords repeated for four minutes have a better chance of putting you into a spiritual trance than five chords repeated for three minutes with a different bridge section. That may be so, but then, of course, it depends very much on which particular two chords you choose and how you present them.

And there you have BJM's main weakness: New­combe is not a melodic genius and he is not a master-commander of all sorts of sounds. Despite all the pretense, the BJM are just a guitar-bass-drums band, and although this rigorous approach gives them a certain sort of integrity (no synthesizers!), the sound may quickly become tedious. And the chances of its becoming tedious actually increase faster than they should, because eventually the songs start becoming larger, and ʽHyperventilationʼ with ʽShe's Goneʼ (10 and 7 minutes res­pectively) are quite likely to try your patience. Think your life moves slowly enough to waste 10 minutes of it on one riff, against which some dickhead keeps informing you that he's "sniffing glue" (as if anybody ever doubted that)? Have so few problems that you can happily drift away to the little brass loop of ʽShe's Goneʼ, losing yourself in the ether until the song abruptly ends with the man telling you that "In my life, I've seen it all"? Take a dose of Methodrone and you get just what you want.

Ultimately, I think it is still reasonable to view Methodrone as sort of a «boot camp» for the band, which would go on to undeniably higher heights — yet it is already an excellent illustration of their synthetic strengths and modernistic weaknesses, and you can draw upon it to both under­stand why certain underground minorities hailed Newcombe as their hero, while others failed to notice him to such an extent that the BJM did not even properly manage to become the torch-bearer for Sixties' revivalism.

3 comments:

  1. Agree that this is a kind of "boot camp" for the band, which would go on to record much better albums.
    Also interesting that while the band's name incorporates a Rolling Stone member, this album's cover is a version of "With the Beatles"/"Meet the Beatles" (four pretty-much-disembodied heads -- BJM's version is predictably much blurrier). 60s revivalism indeed.

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  2. "Rolling Stones member," I meant. And the more I look, the cover might also or alternatively be a version of the Stones' "Out Of Our Heads."

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  3. I was hoping you'd review the Brian Jonestown Massacre!

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