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Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Strung Out In Heaven

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: STRUNG OUT IN HEAVEN (1998)

1) Going To Hell; 2) Let's Pretend That It's Summer; 3) Wasting Away; 4) Jennifer; 5) Got My Eye On You; 6) Nothing To Lose; 7) Love; 8) Maybe Tomorrow; 9) Spun; 10) I've Been Waiting; 11) Dawn; 12) Lantern; 13) Wis­dom.

This was the band's only release on a «major minor label», as they temporarily switched from Bomp! Records to the larger TVT Records, whose biggest claim to fame up till then were the Nine Inch Nails — hardly the closest band to BJM in terms of style and attitude, but somehow the TVT people thought Newcombe and his pals had a bright commercial future before them, and signed them to a multi-record deal. The deal lasted for just one album — this one — and when it flunked, the band got dropped again, with an ever lessening chance to be one day picked up by Warner Bros. or Sony Music Entertainment.

Since Newcombe's dependency on heroin by this time was said to be near-complete, allegedly much of the work fell on the shoulders of Matt Hollywood, and this may be the reason why the record is slightly shorter than usual, and more dynamic — and also even more retro — than usual: although the tempos are still slow rather than fast, there are very few mind-numbing drones, and for the most part the band here just concentrates on a modest, unpretentious pop-rock and folk-rock sound, so that the absolute majority of the songs here sound like inferior imitations of mid-Sixties masterpieces. Okay, so there's nothing essentially new in this statement — it just needs to be stressed that this is the first BJM album that does not even begin to try to build upon the legacy of the elders; instead, it merely imitates that legacy.

Probably the most blatant imitation for those in the know will come with the second song, ʽLet's Pretend That It's Summerʼ, whose ominously melancholic beginning is transparently reminiscent of The Kinks, particularly ʽDead End Streetʼ and similar songs. Ah, but if only Newcombe and Hollywood were really endowed with the genius of a Ray Davies! As it happens, the ominous­ness of the verses is completely wasted on the limp, disappointing chorus — the "let's laugh, have fun..." part, suddenly changing tempo and tonality and borrowing its bassline from the Beatles' ʽRevolution 1ʼ (yes indeed!), dissipates, rather than explodes, the tension build-up of the verse, and, in my opinion, is a first-rate example of how not to write a pop song if you truly want to hook your listener. And since these examples could be easily multiplied, it is no wonder that even a larger label was unable to properly promote the BJM — the Sixties' stylistics might have been «classy» all right, but class without catchiness is a poor contributor to album sales.

ʽWasting Awayʼ is another strange creation, with generational lyrics that seem to have been in­ten­tionally written from a Sixties' perspective: "The kids today / They got nothing to say / Be­cause they taught them that way" — and the accompanying sad harmonica solo brings Neil Young to mind (was there ever a Neil Young reference in a BJM review prior to this? If no, we're making progress). Nice sound, right message, but is this an interesting song? The harmonica solo is probably the best part about it. The rest — well, the song is just too limp and lazy to properly match the aggressive accusations of the lyrics. If I were an angry young man and I heard Anton Newcombe telling me that I'm wasting my life away in this sort of relaxed, nonchalant fashion, I would probably just tell him to go fuck himself — and it just ain't clear who of us exactly would be wasting his life away, anyway.

Or a love song like ʽJenniferʼ — there's, like, one jangly guitar line holding the entire song to­gether, and normally you expect a line like this to serve as a building block for something bigger, but this is just nonsense: it's like coming to a fancy restaurant, getting a nice bread basket for starters and then, much to your surprise, finding out that you are going to get nothing other than nice bread baskets until the end of the day. Come on, guys! Do something! Add an extra frickin' chord, for Chrissake! This is a tribute to Sixties pop — not even Gerry and The Pacemakers would tolerate such arrogantly lazy songwriting!

To cut a long story short, or, rather, to excuse myself for being unable to come up with a long story, Strung Out In Heaven has a very pleasant sound that will be doubly pleasant to all those who like old school folk rock, but do not like monotonous psychedelia. It even has a few oldies re-recorded here to match their then-current understanding of an ideal sound (ʽWisdomʼ from Methodrone, which most people must have forgotten completely by 1998). There is not a single bad song — but there is not one single song here I'd ever love to hear again, either, because the melodies are derivative, the hooks are not well developed, and the production, devoid of BJM's usual layers of multi-everything, is boring. Not coincidentally, almost every other review of this record I've seen usually avoids, intentionally or not, talking about the individual songs — be­cause, well, there's just nothing to say. Good acoustic guitar tones. Not so good singing. Whatever.

2 comments:

  1. As Dead End Street for several reasons is my favourite Kinks song (not that I dislike Mr. Pleasant in any way) I listened to Let's Pretend That It's Summer. It shows what Dead End Street would have been if Davies hadn't been a genius. So let's talk about DES instead - your original review was way too short. Moreover that will show how much Let's Pretend is lacking.
    In the first place the first, sad part (I rather hear dispair iso melancholy) is way more energetic. The introductory theme played by the brass is death marching towards a family trapped in poverty, represented by the vocals. And there is no escape, no matter how unfair fate has treated this family. During the chorus the descending (ie depressing) them is shifted with two beats, with a highly unsettling effect. During the second verse the brass plays a miniature requiem.
    The third chorus suddenly transforms to a major key, turning the song into what classical musicians call a bagatelle. This transformation begins with the piano's, but the same brass that just has played a requiem quickly takes over, creating a hilarious contrast.
    Make sure to check the video as well. It's one of the first videoclips ever (ie telling a visual story) and it totally matches the song - ending in pure slap stick. I don't know a single equivalent for this piece of genius.

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  2. " . . . not even Gerry and The Pacemakers would tolerate such arrogantly lazy songwriting!"

    Ouch! So true.

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