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Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Bravery, Repetition And Noise

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: BRAVERY, REPETITION AND NOISE (2001)

1) Just For Today; 2) Telegram; 3) Stolen; 4) Open Heart Surgery; 5) Nevertheless; 6) Sailor; 7) You Have Been Disconnected; 8) Leave Nothing For Sancho; 9) Let Me Stand Next To Your Flower; 10) If I Love You?; 11) (I Love You) Always; 12) If I Love You? (New European Gold Standard Secret Babylonian Brotherhood Cinema Mix).

Repetition — by all means. Noise — not all that much, compared to what commonly passes for «noise» in 2001. Bravery — well, I would guess that if Anton Newcombe were capable of writing better songs than these, then preferring to release this album instead would require some bravery. As it is, I don't see much bravery here. Certainly dismissing long-time partner Matt Hollywood from the band after some onstage argument does not count as «bravery». Maybe the stubborn way of sticking to the same dronified formula counts as «bravery», from some point of view. But is there any other formula to which Newcombe could switch over without saying good­bye to Brian Jonestown? Did he even have a choice at that point?..

The album feels like a rather natural follow-up to Strung Out In Heaven, largely avoiding lengthy spaced-out jams in favor of shorter pop tunes — and, as already predicted by the model, they are typically slow, folksy, dependent on monotonously strummed chords, and go easier than easy on the hooks. The mood is almost completely fixed in place: no fast rockers, no psychedelic freak­outs, just one slow, drowsy, dark-folk shuffle after another. The three chords that open the album (ʽJust For Todayʼ) perfectly capture the bleakness and somberness of everything that follows, but the song itself never goes anywhere once its main rhythm line is established, and that droning pattern on its own offers little redemption — and not only is Newcombe's singing mumbled as usual, but it is also awfully mixed-in this time, as if he were trying to correlate his troubled state of mind with the shittiest possible way his troubled voice could reach your troubled ears out of the troubled speakers. In short, we're in trouble.

I like the song ʽYou Have Been Disconnectedʼ. Once the obligatory jangly pattern has set in, the band adds a nice, memorable organ riff to it — nothing too phenomenal, but just the right touch on the way of transforming the proceedings into solid pop music, where even Newcombe's ghostly singing seems well aligned with the phantasmagoric organ tone. The organ on ʽOpen Heart Sur­geryʼ, another relative success, also sharpens and enhances the mood, and the song itself is largely free from droning, being totally focused on that organ and a gloomy bass riff. It is one of the few times, also, that Anton tries to overclock himself, which led to some reviewers happily comparing the track's style to The Cure — the big difference, of course, being that Robert Smith would probably have somebody's head on a platter for that sort of arrangement and sloppy production, and he would just keep on layering instrument after instrument so that the depth of the tragedy would be increased every several bars. But Newcombe — you know that guy, he says it all right from the start: «building up» is for pussies.

There is one cover here, of a predictably obscure oldie (ʽSailorʼ by The Cryan' Shames), a good song in its own right but completely lost in this general context — leave it to Anton to transform potential gorgeousness into stoned-out-of-your-mind monotonousness. ʽLet Me Stand Next To Your Flowerʼ may be a pun on the Hendrix line, but the song has nothing to do with Jimi — it is just another monotonous, martial-style pop tune that fundamentally sounds like the Beatles' ʽGood Day Sun­shineʼ with all the joy (and sunshine) surgically removed and replaced with drugged-out numbness. Same goes for ʽIf I Love You?ʼ in both its versions (a stripped-down acoustic rendi­tion) and then a much lengthier, «epic» rendition at the end of the album — a song delivered in such a frozen tone, at such a somnambulant pace, that the answer to the rhetorical question cannot be anything other than "please define love first, and we'll talk later".

Not that any of these tunes are artistically insincere: as usual, they seem to reflect Newcombe's proper state of mind at the time really well. The problem is that we have already known that state of mind for quite some years now, and it is hardly the most fascinating or stimulating state of mind in the world. Nor does it make much sense to woo us over by focusing on the dark shades of Jim Jarmusch (yes, that is him) on the front cover — just the mere fact that (one of) the world's trendiest arthouse directors thus endorses the creativity of the BJM should only make matters worse: in reality, the BJM rise above the usual «hipster boy» level, and hardly need to emphasize their coolness in such additional ways. (Jarmusch did use one of their songs in the soundtrack to Broken Flowers, but was there any real need to «return the favor»?).

On the whole, the record is like a compromise between the «trance» and the «retro pop» aspects of the band — pop music with detached pop hooks, converted into «trance» by the somewhat dehu­manized spirit of its creator. Since it achieves its goals, has a few nice songs, and features the usual classy retro sound that we always expect from Anton and his team, it would be impolite to give it a thumbs down. But will I ever listen to it again? Meaningless question — in Newcombe's world, time stands perfectly still, and there is no such thing as «again», I guess.

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