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Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Spacegirl And Other Favorites


1) Crushed; 2) That Girl Suicide; 3) Deep In The Devil's Eye & You; 4) Kid's Garden; 5) When I Was Yesterday; 6) Spacegirl; 7) Spacegirl (Revisited); 8) After The Fall; 9) Thoughts Of You; 10) Hide And Seek; 11) Never Ever!; 12) Ashtray; 13) Fire Song.

Was there anything in the early classic period of the Rolling Stones that would make them the logical predecessors of «shoegazing»? Not much, I guess, though perhaps some of their longer, «dronier» tracks like ʽI'm Going Homeʼ and especially ʽSing This All Together (See What Hap­pens)ʼ could be said to be very tangentially related to the genre. However, not even ʽSing This All Togetherʼ thrived on monochrome monotonousness — even at their most daring and far out, the Stones never pretended to «minimalist artsiness». Too highbrow for those consummate hitmakers, who could afford to be weird, but couldn't afford to be «inaccessible».

In the light of this, it is odd to see how The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a band (actually, a band-like vehicle for supporting the songwriting, singing, and playing talents of Anton Newcombe, a deeply troubled geek from sunny California) whose veneration of pre-Beggar's Banquet era Stones is as visible from the title as their predilection for the macabre (Jonestown Massacre), be­gan life as a bona fide shoegazing outfit, albeit with a knack for chord sequences and guitar tones that have a lot to do with the mid-Sixties. Later on, Newcombe would make his Stones fanboyism much more evident, but here, it takes time to realize that, yes indeed, quite a bit of BJM's twangy guitar sound comes from the era of Aftermath. And given the album's overall quality, you might not want to waste all that time on something so inessential.

In fact, Newcombe himself has pretty much disowned this record, dismissing it as a tentative col­lection of early youthful experiments — which, it must be noted, did not prevent him from re-releasing it on CD anyway: the original vinyl-only release had but seven tracks, with six more added as bonuses on the 2003 edition. (No contradiction, though — it's just that this guy takes his own history seriously, as do most of us silly people). The record is sometimes labeled as a «com­pilation», which is not altogether accurate: the recordings do date from several different sessions, but none of them were previously released, and if there is one argument for why this really shouldn't be judged as a proper debut album, it is that, according to some sources, The Brian Jonestown Massacre as a band are not even properly represented here — instead, what you are witnessing is a set of lo-fi demos where Newcombe plays all the instruments himself, including (most of the time) programmed drums.

You can already see the talent behind the shoegazing muck: once the first minute of howling feed­back is over, ʽCrushedʼ becomes a well-coordinated twin current of one crunchy and one melodic guitar, with the melodic guitar playing a rather engaging raga line. Newcombe's vocals, however, should rather be placed somewhere in between Robert Smith and Thom Yorke here than have anything to do with Mick Jagger's sneer — and all the way through to the very end, he is playing this reclusive romantic who prefers to fantasize about transcendental love rather than just go out and get some. Which is perfectly in agreement with the ideology of your average shoegazer, but does not present Newcombe as a particularly interesting personality type in his own rights. In fact, his sticky, droning, pleading invocation of "just let me lo-o-o-o-ve you, just let me lo-o-o-o-ve you" is sort of annoying in an imbecile-teenager sort of way. Would any type of female, spacegirl or not, want to fall for this whiner?

That said, on the whole ʽSpacegirlʼ is an interesting experiment — five minutes into the song, the vocals disappear altogether and become replaced with a solemn, stately, marching drone, full of acoustic guitars and synthesized strings and horns that fills up your living room for eight more minutes, then fades away and then fades back in to give you five minutes more of the same. At­mospherically, it is quite similar to the final «jam» part of George Harrison's ʽIt's All Too Muchʼ: you get the feeling of being caught in the middle of some important religious ritual, an offering to the Great Sun or something like that. My only quibble is that the production is so weak, you do not get to properly savor all the small intricate details — the jam is not as monotonous as it seems, because the «strings» are actually playing a dynamic melody, but they are intentionally shoved behind the unchanging rhythmic growl. Why? Silly shoegazing ideology.

Speaking of the shorter tracks, many, if not most of these, would later be re-recorded in superior versions, so it makes little sense to discuss them here; and those that would not are so badly marred by the low quality of the recording that only a diehard lo-fi lover would want to revisit them on a regular basis — something like ʽWhen I Was Yesterdayʼ, for instance, could be an ex­cellent tribute to mid-Sixties psychedelic garage-rock, but the fuzzy rhythm guitar, the bluesy lead guitar, and the snappy vocals all sound like shit. Somebody be a good sport, please, and cover this one in pristine sound quality. Leave the lo-fi to the lo-fi era, please.

What is important, though, is that Spacegirl's limitations are primarily of a technical nature. Even through the shittiest sound, you can sense that Newcombe has a good ear for melody, a good knack for complex arrangements, and a good sense of taste, allowing him to «update» the Sixties for the Nineties without coming across as just a kitschy nostalgia act — which, in a way, may count as a genuine artistic vision. But yes, the relation of Spacegirl to «proper» BJM albums is much like the relation of the Beatles' Decca audition tape to the first recordings of the George Martin era. At the very least, if you are in a hurry, do not make the mistake of letting this record be your introduction to the band. And you don't even have to take my word for it — take Anton's. Seventy-plus minutes of lo-fi «Brian Jones drowned, forms shoegazing band in Heaven on tight budget» stuff can really turn you off very quickly, with no hopes of redemption.


  1. "Would any type of female, spacegirl or not, want to fall for this whiner?"
    I suspect that a shoegazer would be scared his pants off if this actually happened. So the question is irrelevant.

  2. I would totally fall for Bilinda Butcher. Or Rachel Goswell. Or Miki Berenyi. Or any other shoegazer girl I can think of.