Since the release of Take Them On, On Your Own in 2003, things were tumultuous for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. They were unceremoniously dropped by Virgin in a cloud of bad feeling. They lost their drummer. They bounced back and signed with RCA. They welcomed back their drummer. Somewhere in the middle of all this they completely revamped their sound. In fact, their first record for RCA, 2005's Howl, sounds like the work of an entirely different group. Gone are the insistent tempos, the snarling vocals, and the sheets of ...
Since the release of Take Them On, On Your Own in 2003, things were tumultuous for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. They were unceremoniously dropped by Virgin in a cloud of bad feeling. They lost their drummer. They bounced back and signed with RCA. They welcomed back their drummer. Somewhere in the middle of all this they completely revamped their sound. In fact, their first record for RCA, 2005's Howl, sounds like the work of an entirely different group. Gone are the insistent tempos, the snarling vocals, and the sheets of guitar noise. Gone is the hostile and often belligerent pose of the first two albums. Gone is the influence of noise rock bands like the Velvet Underground and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The band has embraced classic American music, namely country, blues, and gospel. It's dramatically expanded its sound to the point where you wonder if the albums that preceded this were some kind of reductionist prank. The band has a light touch and sense of drama and arrangement here that seems to have come out of the blue. (Check the credit to T-Bone Burnett for "additional recording assistance" for a clue, though.) In fact, the first thing you hear on the album is enough to have you checking to make sure the disc isn't defective: the multi-tracked vocals of Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been emulating a gospel choir at the beginning of "Shuffle Your Feet," a rollicking slice of front-porch country complete with strumming acoustic guitars, harmonica, handclaps, and slide. It's no fluke because for the most part the album that follows is built on similarly relaxed, acoustic, and loose underpinnings. Tracks like "Still Suspicion Holds You Tight," "Devil's Waiting" (which features the return of the multi-tracked choir), and "Complicated Situation" have a lightness and ease that they previously could never have achieved. Other songs benefit from the expansion of sound too: "Weight of the World" has an epic, reaching-for-the-stars feel not a million miles from Coldplay and their followers (though it has more gritty soul than that), while "Howl"'s fuzz chamber sound is the closest thing to their previous work, but the circus organ, sleigh bells, and dynamics give the song color where it would have been shades of gray. On these songs and elsewhere the vocals are much more a part of the sound now as they are more upfront and impassioned. Both Hayes and Been have fine voices that are well suited to their new direction, sincere and gritty but never strained. Along with a new sound BRMC seem to have found religion too, as nearly half the songs revolve around God, the Devil, sin, and salvation. "Restless Sinner" and "Gospel Song" (which shows that the band hasn't completely abandoned its old influences, as the song is filtered closely through Spaceman 3's interpretation of gospel) are the most obvious manifestation of this new focus, but much of the record has the exuberance and weight of a band wrestling with heavy emotions. Well, that but without being quite as boring as it sounds. Of course, boredom is relative and by the end of the record you may find yourself wondering whatever happened to your rock & roll. You may feel betrayed by their sudden shift away from noise and danger, confused by the sudden change from a band of sulky post-teens with sex and danger on their minds to questioning (though still young) adults looking for salvation. Understandable, no question. If you want your rock dirty, loud, and dangerous (though BRMC were only halfway believable when that was their image), you had better look somewhere else. If you want it thoughtful and passionate but still alive and realistic, then give Howl a chance. BRMC have grown up and grown interesting. ~ Tim Sendra, Rovi