Saturday, September 24, 2005

God Bless The Brian Jonestown Massacre

I've always been open-minded enough to give stuff a second chance. And showing that consideration for the Brian Jonestown Massacre has made me a very happy boy.

I picked up their 1998 CD, Strung Out in Heaven, for a tidy $2.25 (including shipping--God bless you, eBay) a little over a year ago on a whim. My initial take: decent--but far from essential--revivalist stuff; a little bit of pre-1970 Stones, a touch of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, some retro-psychedelia a la Echo and the Bunnymen, some shoegazer swirliness, and some pretty uneven singing.

But three or four perfect classic rock songs lay buried on Strung Out. Simply put, they wouldn't leave my head. Something told me to explore further, so when Tepid Peppermint Wonderland, a two-disc Brian Jonestown career retrospective, hit record shelves last year (on sale for eleven bucks, no less--God bless you, Easy Street Records) I took the plunge.

Now I get it, and I'm hooked, baby. Straight up and down.

What Anton Newcombe (the BJM's frontman, songwriter, producer, and archetypical nut) is doing ain't reinventing the wheel. You'll get no argument from this corner that there's nothing new going on in the Brian Jonestown Massacre's universe. But I'll argue to the death that the result is some great rock and roll; ragged, sawed-off-shotgun erratic, but frequently, gloriously right.

Tepid Peppermint Wonderland provides a dynamite introduction to the band (much better than the polished but less-satisfying Strung Out in Heaven). The first disc, especially, brims with tons of shoulda-been hits, from decadent and sloppy Stones-y rock ("Who?") to joyous post-punk ("Vacuum Boots") to epic guitar mantras ("She's Gone"). And I dare anyone reading this to find a better, more perfect two minutes of pensive pop heaven than the magnificent "It Girl". Folks introduced to the band through DIG (the documentary featuring the BJM and their pals/rivals, The Dandy Warhols) might also be surprised to find out that Newcombe possesses a sharp sense of humor to back up his hooks, too; "All Around You (Intro)" is a really, really funny Stones parody, and you can't argue with the amusingly snotty (and brilliantly-titled) "Talk Minus Action=Sh%t". The 2005-model Mick and Keith'd give their dentures to write songs as strong as these.

The second disc sags slightly with a couple of live tracks that showcase Newcombe's Achilles Heel; his singing. He possesses a maddeningly inconsistent set of pipes. One minute he's showcasing a bracing Jagger-esque yowl or an affecting Brit-inspired croon, the next minute he sounds like a tone-deaf eleven-year old singing along with Exile on Main Street.

But ultimately, that very inconsistency goes hand-in-hand with one of the band's strong suits--unpredictability. I like not knowing whether the next track on a typical Brian Jonestown disc is gonna be two minutes of pop bliss, four minutes of trashy garage rock, eight minutes of hypnotically sensual psychedelic throb, or twelve minutes of Anton Newcombe literally standing on a streetcorner yelling about God and Buddha like a dotty old loon with a sandwich board. There are undoubtedly more original bands out there, but few of 'em offer such a wild ride from record to record.

That wild-card quality carried over to the BJM's recent live gig at Neumo's here in Seattle on September 9. Newcombe's current roster of musicians were almost docile in their subservience at first (then again, if you've seen DIG, you can't blame 'em). The man himself, by contrast, was prototypically rock-and-roll in his inebriation, his between-song patter veering sharply between drunken inanity and insolent wit (his rant on our Commander-in-Chief's inability to "even eat a f#*&ing pretzel properly" generated paroxysms of intended laughter). Once the music started, though, Anton Newcombe was a pure, committed viaduct for the groove. The primal rhythms and eddying walls of cinematic guitar noise immersed him as fully as they did the audience, and his bandmates relaxed considerably about a third of the way into the set, shucking their timidity and seriously cooking by the time the nigh-two-hour show careened to a close.

Silly as the guy comes off sometimes, there's no question that Anton Newcombe believes 110% in what he's doing. And like James Barrie's fictional man-boy Peter Pan, sometimes the BJM's leader looks like a frickin' idiot. But in an age where lock-step new wave revivalism and calculated diet punk pass for dangerous, the Brian Jonestown Massacre's old-fashioned shambling rock and roll freakshow is downright liberating. And catchy as holy hell.

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