[2 May 2007]
The first time I got into Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, I was in the middle of writing some inane and hastily thrown together term paper on… something. Letterman was on in the background, which says something about my steadfast commitment to academic excellence, and I was probably debating whether my professor would notice two-inch margins when I heard the foot stompin’, head boppin’ churns of “Ain’t No Easy Way Out”. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit it, I jumped up and started rocking out with the band. Embarrassing? Perhaps. But I was in some kind of nearly mentally deranged state that only the chronically procrastination-prone can understand.
So whom was this wonderful band rocking and stomping with a country twang I did not instantly abhor? Black Rebel Motorcycle Club—whaaaat?
I’d heard them years ago working at my school’s radio station and wasn’t a fan. Though a lot of the music I heard at the time blends together in some kind of indie hazy blur, I did not recall anything this good or this coherent put together by the boys from San Fran. BRMC had changed. For the better.
Baby 81, though not as freshly invigorating as its predecessor, continues with an obvious interest in changing and growing, not just content to rest easy with the sound that garnered much critical acclaim by churning out Howl Part II. So many bands today seem to be searching for a pattern, a formula for success and once they find it, they stick with it. With the disposability and ridiculous expanse of music available today, there seems to be fewer and fewer bands willing to grow, change and evolve, instead sticking with whatever works. In addition to the universal fear of rejection, there’s also a fear that if you don’t stick with what you know, you’ll be dismissed, forgotten. Fans will move on to the “we thought you might also like this” bands served up by Apple and Amazon. So what’s left? The tired ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality that’s a real indictment for the future of popular sound. Bands as good as BRMC shouldn’t be pushed to the sidelines by giants like Coldplay or The Killers, who mimic not only their own sound, but everything that’s gone before them. There’s no creative evolution to their sound, which has been the hallmark of so many great artists that doesn’t seem to fit into our iTunes fuelled music universe. BRMC have produced an album that shows the band’s commitment to itself as well as a respect for the fans that should be met with equal enthusiasm.
The thing though, with evolution, is that it doesn’t immediately indicate total success. Baby 81 isn’t nearly as complete as Howl despite their admirable willingness to try different things. The overall vibe to the album is one of rock, taking their folksy approach on Howl and kicking it way up. A band branching out from its last album by getting back to its roots seems counterintuitive, but it works. Except when it doesn’t. The album has standout tracks like “Berlin”, “666 Conducer” and “Lien on Your Dreams” that have a groovy punch to them, stemming from Howl, but with a grittier bite. In spite of some truly great songs, the album feels uneven at times. Songwriters Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been stray too far from genuine experimental attempts at novel sound, and instead veer into awkward, unnatural territory. “All You Do is Talk”, an U2esque power ballad just doesn’t fit in with the seductive bluesy rock that makes the other tracks so great. “Killing the Light” does much better blending the rock ’n’ roll of Baby 81 with softness, and the sexy, breathily delivered threat, “look what you started”. Ooh baby, Baby 81!
It’d be nice if that excitement stormed through the album, but it seems like the Hayes and Been don’t realize that dark songs can be addictive and energetic. Although it’s not a bad song, the poppiness of “It’s Not What You Wanted” lives up to its name. It has an uplifting rhythm that breaks from the grit of the others but I just couldn’t get into it. I much prefer “Cold Wind” for a kick in the ass, whereas “It’s Not What You Wanted” is like a shallow upper. It might be that I can too easily picture it in the next episode of the OC, but I guess that’s society’s fault, not BRMC’s. Wait… is the OC even on anymore?
Anyway, the lyrics are too ironic “it’s not what you wanted, it’s not what you came here for”. True! I came to rock out with the churning, aggressively sexy and sinister churn of what follows, “666 Conducer”. There’s more depth and provocation emerging from these songs and opening track “Berlin” proclamation that, “suicide’s easy, what happened to the revolution?” sets the tone for an album interested in delving into the underbelly of the world, not serving up easy answers. There’s an appreciable political tone, one of wary and suspicion that doesn’t condescend, it probes the minds of its listeners, while also promoting intellectual meaning in music, something that can be sorely lacking even in the best sounding albums.
The songwriting strength inherent in their misses as well as their hits earns BRMC another success, albeit one with some growing pains. But maybe that’s part of the goal and if we look to the album’s title to signify anything, it could be channeling some tried and true circle of life imagery. It kinda works right? This album is more like BRMC at its birth than its predecessor, but its learning as it goes. Or maybe I’m reaching.
In any case, I highly recommend watching Letterman in lieu of homework, kids.