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Redemption songs
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club renew their faith in rock and roll
BY MAC RANDALL
Related Links

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's official Web site

Matt Ashare reviews Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Take Them On, on Your Own.

Be careful, pop pigeonholers. A band who at first seem easy to peg can turn out to be a slippery fish. That�s one lesson to be learned from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. When B.R.M.C. (Virgin) appeared in 2001, the San Francisco�based trio were quickly lumped in with a number of other guitar-driven bands � the Strokes and the White Stripes, to name two � spearheading a "return to rock" movement. On the surface, it made sense. The band took their name from Marlon Brando�s iconic motorcycle gang in The Wild One, dressed in black, and wrote gritty anthems like "Whatever Happened to My Rock �n� Roll." But on closer listen, B.R.M.C. and 2003�s like-minded Take Them On, on Your Own (Virgin) reveal Black Rebel�s rock-and-roll ideal to be quite different from that of the Strokes and the Stripes. Here was a band whose mix of punk attitude, goth looks, and riffs as drony as they were dirty was rooted in the �80s Brit post-punk of Love and Rockets and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

That was act one for BRMC. Their new Howl (RCA), which they�re supporting with a tour that�ll hit the Paradise September 27, shelves fuzzboxes in favor of acoustic guitars, piano, harmonica, and even a trombone or two. The melodies and chords are steeped in folk, blues, and gospel, the lyrics in a sense of fatalism with religious overtones. It may be rock, but it feels older and more lived-in than that.

Black Rebel guitarist Peter Hayes admits that Howl was born out of frustration with the way the band had been perceived. "With us, the songwriting wasn�t talked about that much," he says over the phone from BRMC�s current home base of LA. "And a sound only goes so far if you ain�t got a song to back it up. We were trying to prove to ourselves that we didn�t have to rely on the fashion statement of the band, because fashionability comes and goes." He adds with a chuckle, "It came and went, actually."

Yet according to Hayes, this kind of album had been in the works ever since the band formed. "A lot of these songs were written for our first album. One of them, �Shuffle Your Feet,� was from before we were a band even. We didn�t want to put them out as B-sides because they were stronger than that, but we didn�t have enough songs like them to make an album, so we just held on to them. They show a side of the band that�s been a big element right from the beginning."

Once the initial shock wears off, connections between Howl and the earlier releases emerge. Hayes and bassist Robert Levon Been still sing in the same rough, reedy, almost-but-not-quite-identical voices. The stomping, infectious guitar riff on "Ain�t No Easy Way" is bluesier than anything they�ve recorded before, but only just a bit. And with minor changes of instrumentation, "Still Suspicion Holds You Tight" and "Weight of the World" could�ve fit on either of the first two Black Rebel albums. "It�s all coming from the same spirit," Hayes agrees. "The change is not as big a deal as it can be made out to be. It�s not like we didn�t have acoustic guitars on the other records."

The actual recording of the album, however, was tumultuous. Burnt out from touring and the music-biz promo circus, the band parted ways with Virgin last year, and they were inching ever closer to a break-up as 2004 went on. "We stopped talking to each other and let things build up," Hayes says. "We needed a fuckin� break, basically." An August European festival tour climaxed with the angry departure of mercurial British drummer Nick Jago. Reconvening in LA, Hayes and Been decided to press on with what they dubbed "The Americana LP," paying the studio costs out of their own pockets. They took turns at the drums and handled most of the other instruments as well, with occasional help from brothers Ryan and Paul Cobb of the Philadelphia band Mad Action.

Even though most of the new material had been around for a while, it seemed to fit BRMC�s uncertain future. On the roadhouse blues opener, "Shuffle Your Feet," Hayes sings, "Who knows if I�ll see you again"; "Open Invitation," the hymnlike hidden closing track, has the line "We may never be here again." Hayes concedes that "the lyrical content is serious. The way I look at it is, yes, we may never be here again, so let�s do the best we can to make a positive change right now."

The message of several Howl songs seems to be that faith is the key to making positive change: "Devil�s Waitin�," "Restless Sinner," "Gospel Song." "I will stay with Jesus till I can�t go another mile," Been sings on "Gospel Song." Sin, salvation, and Biblical matters aren�t new terrain for BRMC � "Salvation" is the last song on B.R.M.C. But there is a bigger concern with religion here, both in the gospel stylings of several songs and in the lyrics. "I grew up on a farm in Minnesota and went to church every Sunday," Hayes says. "And every Wednesday. And Mondays, too. That was a real strong influence on me. You�d pray that the crops would get rain or for the snow to go away. As you get older, you feel your soul�s at stake. And I do like to believe there is such a thing. Maybe it�s just a dream, but that�s okay with me. Anyway, we�re not Jesus freaks, and we�re not trying to preach."

Toward the end of the Howl sessions, Nick Jago returned. "He�d been in England, on his �vision quest,� as he says," Hayes recounts with a laugh. "I think it involved looking to the bottom of a bottle or two. Finally he figured out he�d rather be in this band than somewhere else, and we�d rather have him in this band."

Jago plays on one of the last songs recorded for the album, "Promise," which is also one of Howl�s biggest stylistic departures. Taken at a slow, stately tempo, with Been and Hayes wheezily employing their high-school trombone training over a piano line straight out of a Southern Baptist church, it sounds uncannily like the Band. "The resemblance is spooky," Hayes admits. "It�s bizarrely grown-up-sounding but playful at the same time. That�s one of Robert�s. He�s loved the Band for a long time." Recent photos confirm Hayes�s explanation: sporting a beard, Been is now a dead ringer for the late Band keyboardist/singer Richard Manuel.

Another change BRMC fans will notice is that on the first two albums Been called himself Robert Turner. That was an attempt to play down his being the son of Michael Been, the singer-guitarist who led the �80s band the Call. Early on, Michael had helped BRMC, particularly on the production side, but his son didn�t want to publicize the relationship. It appears that�s no longer a concern.

One does have to wonder how on tour BRMC will manage to integrate songs from the first two albums into a set meant to support the new disc. "The new songs really blend well with the old ones," is Hayes�s answer. "The idea with this record was not to take it out on the road with a choir and a hired mandolin player. We wanted to do it all ourselves the way we�ve always done it. I may be playing an acoustic guitar live, but I still have four amplifiers, and I�ll turn them up as loud as possible."

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club + Mark Gardner | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | Sept 27 | 617.228.6000.

 


Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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