THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: TAKE IT FROM THE MAN! (1996)
1) Vacuum Boots; 2) Who?; 3) Oh Lord; 4) Caress; 5) (David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Six; 6) Straight Up And Down; 7) Monster; 8) Take It From The Man; 9) B.S.A.; 10) Mary, Please; 11) Monkey Puzzle; 12) Fucker; 13) Dawn; 14) Cabin Fever; 15) In My Life; 16) The Be Song; 17) My Man Syd; 18) Straight Up And Down.
In 1996 alone, The Brian Jonestown Massacre released three LPs — one in May, one in June, and one in October. Avantgarde schizos and jazz wankers aside, the last time I can remember a thing like that was Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969, and even then the albums were shorter and the intervals were longer. So does this mean that Anton Newcombe is the Miracle Man and the Creative Superboss of the decade?
Well... see, the trick is that the man takes really good care of each musical idea he comes up with. Where a «traditional» pop-rock songwriter, were he diligent enough, would make three-minute long songs where he would have to have at least one melody for the verse/chorus and one for the bridge section, Newcombe makes four-minute long songs that have one melody for everything, then slightly tweaks it around to create two or three more melodies out of it, which are then reused for three or four other songs. As for the lengths, it is usually no problem to take care of these since the typical tempo for Brian Jonestown Massacre is «slow trot», almost literally so because the rhythm guitars are strummed over one or two chords, giving you the feel of a leisurely carriage ride through some endless English valley. Optionally — with Brian Jones himself in his fur coat riding in the back.
The album itself is as much influenced by the Stones as it is by the Beatles, or the Byrds, or any other mid-Sixties band with a penchant for folk, drone, jangle, and psychedelia. Produced by Larry Thrasher of Psychic TV and featuring now no less than four different guitar players, it completely dispenses with the funky dance influences of Methodrone and almost completely dispenses with the band's shoegazing past, leaving only the «repetitiveness» principle as a key stratagem to follow. In the meantime, Newcombe is trying to develop a garage sneer for his singing voice, which is somewhat hard for him to do — he does not look like a natural barker, snarler, or screamer, just a regular smart guy who is either incapable of or afraid of «pushing too hard».
The one song from here that many people may be aware of without knowing it is ʽStraight Up And Downʼ, which was chosen by Terence Winter as the main theme track for Boardwalk Empire — cutting out the vocal part and just retaining the intro, the guitar solo, and the coda. As far as patterns go, it is tremendously typical of the classic BJM sound — the jangle, the drone, the slow trot, the sparseness of ideas, the Sixties-style guitar tones, the little feedback howl that puts an end to the tune. But, as most of the classic BJM tunes, it is not particularly mind-blowing: just a nice, slightly manneristic, exercise in jangling that does not seem to demand any strong emotional reaction — or if it does, I'm not sure which one to choose.
If I were to choose one verse that summarizes the spirit of the album, I'd currently go with this one: "I know the difference between right and wrong / I pooled them all together and I made this song / I know the difference between night and day / Doesn't really matter what I think or say" (ʽCaressʼ). Incidentally, ʽCaressʼ is the fastest song (the only fast song) on the album, with a nervous tempo and freak-out blues guitar solos that remind one of Dylan's early electric sound circa Bringing It All Back Home, and the lyrics and music convey well enough the chief mood of Newcombe and BJM — confusion in the face of an alien world that is impossible to understand, decipher, or adapt to. There may be yet another link with Brian Jones here, regarding Newcombe's own history of drug intake, but where drugs had destroyed Brian's originally strong (if not entirely sane) mind, in Anton's case, they seem to be just sort of a natural friend to an already deranged, or at least disoriented and heavily warped conscience.
Three themes, or, rather, three questions are running rampant through the record — (a) "Who the fuck am I?", (b) "What the heck have they done to me?", and (c) "gee, you're like beautiful or something, but aren't we both too batshit crazy to behave like two normal people in love?". Each of the songs addresses at least one of these questions, but sometimes two or even all three at the same time. You will very quickly get used to that and judge the songs not by their message, but by whether they have a cherry on top, in the form of a distinguishable hook — like the rather ridiculous, but memorable falsetto holler of the title of ʽWho?ʼ, maybe the best song the actual Who never wrote, though it does ask the same question that they did. Or the gruff twangy resolution of ʽCaressʼ. Or the swampy blues vamp of the title track — which is probably the single most convincingly Stonesiest song on the album.
The not-so-sly references to additional heroes, usually wedged in the titles rather than the lyrics, may be an additional bait for reviewers, but do not think too much of them — ʽMy Man Sydʼ does have a few vocal lines that are reminiscent of Barrett, yet the song is way too «normal» for a genuine Barrett tribute, and ʽ(David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Sixʼ does borrow the verse melody from ʽSpace Oddityʼ ("does she love you, you suppose..." = "ground control to Major Tom..."), but that's about all it does, in toto (remember about the sparseness of ideas — having two different chord sequences in the same song to Newcombe is the epitome of extravagance). It is, however, important to be able to call out all these spirits from the past, since both Bowie in his Major Tom days and Barrett in his fruitcake days are like natural brothers to Mr. Newcombe.
Likewise, there is no better way to prove his "pool them all together" approach in action than to offer a coda for the second, much longer and much limper version of ʽStraight Up And Downʼ, in which the man superimposes the "whoo-hoo's!" of ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ on top of the "da, da, da-da da-da da's" of ʽHey Judeʼ. Outside of context, this makes no sense, but as a symbolic gesture, it's kinda cool — a forceful, but rational merger of «good» and «evil» where one may not properly exist without the other (as well as, perhaps, an ironic answer to the stupid «Beatles or Stones?» debate in popular culture).
Like all BJM albums, this one, too, may have been more efficient, had it been sensibly trimmed down — after a while, the songs start to get way too repetitive not only in mood, but also in melody (I originally mistook ʽThe Be Songʼ for yet another take on ʽStraight Up And Downʼ, for instance, and it does not help that the laid-back, druggy-hazy tempos of the songs make your brains a little mushy after the first thirty or forty minutes). But taken on the level of «wholesome experience» rather than individual songs, it succeeds in letting you in on this ragged, confused vision; most importantly, no matter how transparent all the influences are, it is clearly seen that Newcombe is his own master, and that he merely uses «ancient» forms to express his own problems — ultimately, they may be the same problems that Brian Jones used to have, but the trick is that Brian Jones never had the time or the capacity to express them himself. In any case, Brian Jones is more like a «spearhead» figure here, a tribal mascot, a lost twin soul, rather than a source for meaningless copy-cat activity, and this adds enough extra intrigue and suspense to a flawed, but interesting record to guarantee a thumbs up.
PS. I do have to add this, though: style-wise, this and the following two albums have some of the most ugly, cringeworthy covers I have ever had the misfortune of seeing — largely because of the Godawful ugly font work. I mean, what the heck is this, Microsoft Office '95 or something? Was Bomp! Records so utterly broke they couldn't hire these guys a half-decent artist?