Psychedelia has a tendency to seem unhurried while keeping a tempo it can’t quite enjoy, and Third World Pyramid finds Anton Newcombe honing in on a progression that works.
Pressed in 1996 to guess who would make a better record in 2016: the Dandy Warhols or the Brian Jonestown Massacre, it would be hard to find a person to cast a vote for Newcombe and his crew. After all, they seemed so passionately volatile from their first moment. Likewise, most would have answered that the Dandys were championing a sound that was three to four years away from making a career for Tame Impala, whereas the Brian Jonestown name seemed to fizzle out after 2003’s underrated …And This Is Our Music. But here we are, in 2016, and the Dandys have made the worst record of their career (Distortedland) while Brian Jonestown have churned out another solid entry in a surprisingly deep catalog, Third World Pyramid.
If you are thinking that the Dandys vs. BJM narrative is tired, know that I agree to a certain extent; however, their careers have followed such a mirrored path that it's impossible not to comment on it. Both began on the west coast in the mid-'90s and served as the stars of the perfect music documentary (Dig!). The similarities don’t stop there, either, as both also made their first and only electronic record in 2003 and have struggled to maintain relevance in the last decade. The BJM trumpeter even does a great Dandys impression on “Don’t Get Lost” (although the song can’t touch Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia).
Actually, trumpet appears throughout the sequence, marking some of the great moments on the record, like “Oh Bother”. The title track is a real standout as well, matching an up tempo groove with a low register female vocal. Simple and substantial, it's over before you can say, “Tepid Peppermint Wonderland”. It’s a better version of the same idea that failed on the opener; they're similar pieces, but as a weaker song and with no goal to achieve, it hovers like one long sigh for two and a half minutes (until it's over), which is unfortunate because the record has a lot to offer, and none of it is promised at the commencement.
When “Like Describing Colors to a Blind Man on Acid” kicks in, you are immediately transported to a rainy day 20 years ago. Its like Newcombe finally wrote another song that sounds like the classics. To counter the argument, though, listen to the way the vocals sound on Third World Pyramid and then listen to any track off of Take It From the Man or Give It Back; you'll notice that all the immediacy of his voice is gone. This is a problem since his inflection is one of the hallmarks of their revivalist sound and his delivery is one of their great gifts. If their classic records sounded like Newcombe on uppers, then this is the reverse: the whole record sounds protracted and dripping in molasses.
Slow isn’t always bad, however. Psychedelia has a tendency to seem unhurried while keeping a tempo it can’t quite enjoy, and he hones in on a progression that works. He has also shown a new trick: restraint. In the '90s, BJM records were so stuffed with songs, jams, and bonus tracks that sitting through one became a pain. (Methodrone was 72 minutes and Take It Back was 69 minutes.) In contrast, Third World Pyramid sits at a mean and lean 48 minutes -- just the right amount of Anton. That doesn’t mean that there are no jams, either; "Assignment Song" develops for nine minutes, and it earns every second of its run time with sitars, My Bloody Valentine-esque squeals, distant trumpets, and is-it-human-or-robot squawks.
Sadly, a big misstep comes with the final track, "The Sun Ship". It's paced and named like a Flaming Lips song, but the melody fumbles on its rise to the skyline, leaving you wishing that they kept it and rewrote the melody. The penultimate track, “Lunar Surf Graveyard”, also leaves quite a bit to be desired. Some of the guitar notes ring out like Pet Sounds breaks, but as a second instrumental, it will never quite work when you could have had Newcombe crooning in a field of hazy smoke.
Newcombe was a man who seemed destined to implode, so listening to a record written and produced by him in 2016 seems like a victory for indie musicians everywhere, especially the dozens of bands copying Brian Jonestown Massacre for their sound, their look, and/or their ideology. But as Third World Pyramid proves, there is one thing they can never copy: their frontman.