[1 December 2009]
Boy, I wish this had been better.
Not just because it’s a drag to spend a lot of time with a disappointing record, picking apart its exact failings. No, I had actually relished the opportunity to defend Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Sure, in many ways they’re kind of ridiculous. They have attracted criticism for their (supposedly unearned) appropriation of black leather Brando attitude and delta blues swagger. Even I, an avowed fan, am prepared to acknowledge that their lyrics often fall short of brilliant. But for all this, their records are pretty good, and that’s all that matters in the end. For every moment that might lead you to roll your eyes, they deliver a kick-ass single like “Weapon of Choice”, “Stop”, or “Weight of the World”. Despite the Jesus and Mary Chain comparisons, a worthier analogue might be a ‘70s hard rock band like Cactus. It’s not complicated, it’s not even that smart, but it sounds great when you turn it all the way up.
Unfortunately, their new live album is terrible.
This album’s purpose is unfathomable. It’s sloppy, but without passion. Perhaps they were going for either a sense of wild abandon or aloof detachment, but committed to neither; they end up sounding under-rehearsed and somnambulant. Take, for example, “Weapon of Choice”. The standout single from 2007’s Baby 81, it is presented here in vastly inferior form as the leadoff track. Sure, Peter Hayes’ opening guitar riff isn’t going to pack the same kind of punch without the layering and effects that a studio environment can provide, but what about Robert Levon Been’s mumbly, half-assed singing? The dynamics remain at the same tepid level throughout; they don’t dig in on a chorus, they don’t back off before a climactic crescendo. The drumming is murky and consistently behind the beat (drummer Nick Jago has since been replaced). I can’t imagine what the band thought while listening back to these tapes. Live isn’t a warts-and-all document of one concert—the liner notes say recordings were pulled from three different shows across Europe. Is this seriously the best version of “Weapon of Choice” they could find? Someone told them they didn’t have to release a live album, right? It’s not like this was rushed out without their approval—Peter Hayes helped mix the damned thing.
“Weapon of Choice” at least started life as a good song. Weaker material like “666 Conducer” or “Berlin” doesn’t stand a chance. Everyone involved in a creative capacity beyond “lighting director” should be deeply ashamed. Only “Ain’t No Easy Way” emerges relatively unscathed. Grungy slide guitar and fuzz bass bring it closer in style to their electric output, and Hayes’ vocals are actually animate. It’s a modest reinvention that allows us to engage with the material in a novel way. Outside of this track, however, the most energy we hear from either vocalist is someone saying “Good evening, Glasgow!” after the first song.
There’s a DVD, too. BRMC’s stage presence turns out to be nonexistent. It’s the same performances, only you get to watch three immobile guys wearing black leather, artificially enlivened by hyperactive editing and strobe lights. There are also extra songs, including Baby 81‘s “American X”, which was already bloated and tedious at nine minutes. So we have the same bad album, but now it’s longer and you have to watch it. Rounding out this unthinkable smorgasbord is a separate DVD full of bonus features. Here we have even more underwhelming live songs, some BBC sessions, and some pointless studio footage. Turns out BRMC are scintillating conversationalists, too.
In a nutshell, Live is inexplicable and inexcusable. Every aspect of this record is shoddy and amateurish. It seems unfair to single out the packaging, but it seems representative of the record as a whole that the jewel case keeps falling apart in my hands and that there are typos in the track listing. It’s like no one who helped make this cared even a little bit. Once, I had wanted to make a case for BRMC’s being an underappreciated, solid rock ‘n’ roll band, but if even they don’t give a shit, why should we?