The Jesus and Mary Chain: The Power of Negative Thinking

The Jesus and Mary Chain
The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides and Rarities

By the time you finish listening to this box-set, you might be bald.

Why? The answer is simple: because there’s a very good chance you may rip your hair out from sheer frustration after hearing The Power of Negative Thinking: The B-Sides and Rarities. What we have here is an absolutely intimidating four-disc overview of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s lesser known tracks, ranging from alternate versions to acoustic reduxes to totally unreleased songs. Over the course of six albums, the brotherly duo of Jim and William Reid drenched their perfect pop nuggets in layers of guitar static, wowing as many people as they annoyed, all while slowly opening the door for acts like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth to make commercial inroads years later.

If the Reid brothers were anything, however, they were maddeningly inconsistent. Their 1985 debut Psychocandy still stands as one of the greatest albums ever made, and for good reason. It was a sleazy strut of a record that was all sex and drugs, gloom and guitars, all delivered without a hint of irony, but still grounded in melodies that bordered on outright poppy. The list of classic, iconic tracks from that disc is near endless: “Just Like Honey”, “Taste of Cindy”, “You Trip Me Up”, etc. Recorded with a full band, the album was an instant sensation, but as the band went on, things got stranger. The Reid brothers tossed other instrumentalists in and out, kept switching between live drummers and drum machines, and — in more than once instance — they would strip away their signature feedback sound just to try something new, climaxing with the almost folk/country-inspired 1994 effort Stoned & Dethroned.

Not a single one of their post-Psychocandy discs managed to match the iconic status of the original, but this didn’t stop the Reid brothers from penning brilliant, catchy singles that actually wound up garnering a decent share of airplay on both college and (in the case of the Mazzy Star duet “Sometimes Always”) mainstream radio. Though they were somewhat of a cult band during their main run, the later prominence of the aforementioned My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth wound up giving the Chain a bigger audience than they could have initially anticipated, as they were now considered the forefathers of modern day “noise rock,” even though the Reids were just as indebted to the Velvet Underground for breaking ground with what feedback could do in a pop context.

Yet Chain fans are about as devoted as you can get, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that when it comes to odds-and-sods collections, the Reid brothers have actually released three of them: 1988’s Barbed Wire Kisses, 1993’s The Sound of Speed, and 1995’s The Jesus and Mary Chain Hate Rock ‘N’ Roll. For the devout who own those albums, The Power of Negative Thinking comes off as a bit of a smack in the face, as this box-set contains virtually every song on those three discs, along with dozens upon dozens of other unreleased nuggets. Admittedly, no one is going to be clamoring over pointless excursions like the 67-second nonsense that is “F.Hole”, but, for every ho-hum demo that the Reids ever produced, there often comes some left-field masterpiece that just knocks you flat on your back. “Why’d You Want Me” (initially from Sound of Speed), is a blissful, gorgeous pop number that could have been a hit in some other universe, the kind of song that you discover on a friend’s mix CD that makes you wonder who is responsible for such a glorious piece of innocuous ’60s-styled pop grandeur.

In fact, for those casual Chain fans who are searching for those buried sonic treasures, Negative Thinking is positively full of them. There’s the giddy guitar sugar rush of “Something I Can’t Have”, the laid back “Lost Star” (which has inexplicably not been covered by Oasis, as of yet), the surprise covers of the Beach Boys (“Surfin’ USA” — appearing in two versions, no less), the Temptations (a fantastically minimalist take on “My Girl”), and — oddly enough — Prince’s “Alphabet Street” (here given the full Reid avant-noise treatment). Some songs, like the home-spun rootsy pop of “Taking It Away”, sound like the work of a completely different band altogether, which, really, is exactly the point of Negative Thinking. It gives us an alternate history of one of the most influential bands of the past 30 years, showing us the playful sides of the Reid brothers where before they were cast as mopey distortion pedal miscreants. True fans know that there has always been more than just doom and gloom to the Jesus and Mary Chain, but now, before them, they finally have all the proof they’ll ever need to back that up.

Though the highlights are stunningly high, that doesn’t mean that Negative Thinking is an outright success. Wedged between this set’s hidden classics are lesser-known tracks, best left on history’s wayside. There’s the stumbling, fumbling blues experiment “Shake”, the near parody “Deviant Slice” (which sounds like the theme song to a bad ’80s cop show, complete with dated synthesizers), the misguided take on Pink Floyd’s “Vegetable Man”, the lamentable tape-splicing experiment “Nineteen666” (tragically closing the entire set), and so on. Yes, you must certainly have to wade through some misfires to get to the good stuff, but when you do stumble across that tender, vulnerable ballad that you sometimes forget the Reids are capable of (like the utterly breathtaking “Bleed Me”, which pretty much set the template for Feeder’s entire career with its surprise ending), it almost completely reconfigures every preconceived notion you have of the band — something that box-sets rarely, rarely do.

Hardcore fans will obviously have some misgivings about the track selection (note how Hate Rock ‘N’ Roll‘s “I Hate Rock ‘N’ Roll” and Sound of Speed‘s extended “Sidewalking” are completely omitted here), but really, it’s hard to snipe at a bloated box set like this when so many of the songs are just downright spectacular. Sure, you might have ripped all of your hair out by the time you get to the end of it (hello there, “Little Red Rooster”), but, surprisingly, it’s actually worth all the pain.

RATING 7 / 10