Thursday, October 3, 2013

Album Review: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Specter at The Feast

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:  Specter At The Feast
Label:  Vagrant
Released:  March 19, 2013


In the summer of '07, as a weird personal exercise, I decided it'd be fun to check out more bands with the word "black" in their name.  There seemed to be a ton of 'em, and having "black" somewhere in there appeared to be code for "rawk!"  I was still on a big Black Sabbath kick from the year prior, and The Black Keys' Magic Potion had been in rotation on the hi-fi too*.  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had just released their fourth album Baby 81 and I liked the album cover with the sexy Gibson ES-335 on it, splintered and fractured as if to say there was just too much rawk happening here!  I decided to finally check this band out.

BRMC, as they're known to fans who have no time to say the whole damn name, are a greasy three-piece rock band from San Francisco who launched during the garage rock revival of the early 00's.  Comprised of Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes (a Brian Jonestown Massacre vet) sharing guitar, bass, and vocal duties, and Nick Jago on drums (replaced by Leah Shapiro in '08), these guys really played the part - all black attire, leather jackets, cool disposition, Marlboros hanging off sneered lips, with a minimalist piss n' vinegar sound unheard in rock music for some time (the specter of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park still loomed large).

It's easy to assume that BRMC were second-stringers riding the trendy wave credited to retro-rockers The Strokes and The White Stripes, but their debut, B.R.M.C., dropped in '01 three months prior to the hugely successful Is This It and White Blood Cells.  With a firecracker lead single appropriately called "Whatever Happened To My Rock 'n' Roll," BRMC merit some honest praise for their part in kickstarting the trad-rock renaissance that helped wash away rap-metal.  Turns out they weren't aping The White Stripes or The Strokes, but rather The Velvet Underground, T. Rex, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and The Verve.

BRMC would go on to put out a half-dozen more albums over the years, earnestly incorporating elements of the blues, rockabilly, folk, country, gospel, psych-rock, shoe gaze, and brit pop into their smoldering outlaw jams.  BRMC were a kaleidoscope of great sounds I already loved, and despite the pastiche and affectation, they became one of my favorite bands.

So here we are at BRMC's sixth proper album, Specter At The Feast, released this past spring. The White Stripes are no more, and The Strokes couldn't even muster a tour to support their recent Comedown Machine album release.  BRMC at least deserve a whisky toast for soldiering on.  Informed by the recent passing of Robert Levon Been's father, Michael Been (also frontman of 80's rockers The Call, and later BRMC's live sound engineer and mentor), much of Specter vacillates between mournful sluggishness and the kind of epic hokeyness Bono would endorse.  Goofy sequencing pushes their trademark rawk to the latter half of the album. 

Even at low throttle, Specter At The Feast does improve on the band's last effort, a haggard Beat The Devil's Tattoo from 2010, boasting warm and spacious production immediately apparent on the slow burning opener "Fire Walker" and sentimental one-two combo "Returning" and "Lullaby" fronted by Been on vocals.  Later, Hayes takes lead vocals on the haunting gospel tune "Sometimes The Light" which sounds like it was recorded in an empty cathedral.  Really quite lovely.
Hayes also fronts some of Specter's more vicious rockers.  "Teenage Disease" explodes after the album's midway mark with the buzz-saw guitars and dumb lyrical rancor BRMC are perhaps best loved for:  "I'm a total waste/ I got no social grace/ You better grow yourself a spine/ Or get out of the way!"  Yeah, there's the rawk I was waiting for!  Later the seething "Sell It," my favorite on the album, makes the sentiment more explicit, and sarcastic, with the opening line "I'm mad/ Gonna sell it on a T-shirt" overtop another sinister bassline that Been does so well.  Little wonder "Sell It" soundtracks all manner of badassery in the trailer for Ridley Scott's forthcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor.  I'm sold.     

The biggest surprise on Specter At The Feast, and therefore its brightest highlight, is the band's faithful take on the late Michael Been's "Let The Day Begin."  The original was a minor hit for the elder Been's band The Call in 1989, and was drenched in so much cloying populist optimism Al Gore used it as his presidential campaign song in 2000.  Although the arrangement is unchanged, BRMC, with Robert Levon Been on vocals, add enough dirt and crust to make this version their own.  "Let The Day Begin" is a welcome tribute to Robert's father, and the massive drums and skyward trajectory of the guitar and vocals show that BRMC would be more than capable of commanding arenas if they could just crawl out of the dingy nightclubs.   

Ultimately, Specter At The Feast is a solid effort with some gems included, but large portions of an already bloated album are sequenced poorly and contribute to an overly lethargic pace that doesn't do the band justice.  Some tracks just seem half-baked and self-indulgent - for example, the nearly four minute chain gang shuffle of "Some Kind of Ghost" could have been saved for a post-album addendum like the band did previously with the surprisingly good Howl Sessions and American X:  Baby 81 Sessions. 

Despite Specter At The Feast's flaws and the contrived nature of the band itself (reinforced by that ridiculous name), it's hard for me not to root for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  In this brave new musical world where the barriers between "pop" and "underground" blur and newer styles like EDM (ie. electronic dance music) supplant rock & roll in the hearts, minds and ears of young people, it's comforting to know that ardent rock bands like BRMC endure - carrying the torch for a rebellious music tradition that first spat in the face of conservative popular culture nearly 60 years ago.  Whatever happened to my rock 'n' roll?  It's alive and well, and here to stay. 

 *  I'd been into The Black Crowes, Black Flag, and Black Moon (hip-hop) as a teen and, shortly after Black Sabbath, The Black Keys and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, got into The Black Angels, Black Mountain, Black Lips, Black Moth Super Rainbow (bizzaro electro-pop), and most recently Black Breath (crushing "death n' roll" style metal).  Like my man Wesley Snipes says, always bet on black!

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