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Audio Reviews
Baby 81
by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
RCA Records (2007)
Baby 81
If there’s one thing you should probably know before reading this, it’s that I first came to know Black Rebel Motorcycle Club by way of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. First, obliquely, as a name-drop on the official BJM website (under the “Good Shit” section). Second, more directly, after learning that BRMC guitarist/bassist/vocalist Peter Hayes had previously played a part in the BJM. Third, most recently, by picking up the recent BRMC release, Baby 81, whilst grooving to a very Jonestown-y mood.

Yeah… like it or not, I’ve essentially been preprogrammed to think of the BRMC as a quasi-offshoot of the BJM. This is not to say that the two bands are all that similar, or that the work of BJM mastermind Anton Newcombe has overly (or even directly) influenced that of current BRMC triumvirs Peter Hayes, Robert Levon Been, and Nick Jago. It’s just not proper to hold one up against the other, especially when you consider my preexisting bias. So, I’ll waste no more time comparing the two bands, aside from howe’er long it takes to say/write/type that they both fall under whatever rock genre sub-set currently encapsulates post-1960’s psychedelia and American blues-rock as re-imagined by the British Invasion (both 60’s Brit-rock and 90’s Britpop).

There—that’s it. Done. Moving on.

Actually, let’s latch on to that line about 60’s Brit-rock and 90’s Britpop. Trace your finger along the imaginary timeline linking Point A, the first British Invasion (vis-à-vis the Beatles and the Who), to Point B, the “second” British Invasion (vis-à-vis Blur and Oasis). Feel free to note the mid 70’s and early 90’s spots of crusty knottiness that were the punk-rock and alternative/grunge revolutions, respectively. Let’s call them the ever-nebulous and oh-so-apropos Point(s) X.

The point—lowercase, of course—is that these three capital-P Points mark the rather obvious source material for the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. You’ve got your 60’s era psych and blues-rock coming through with watery reverb, echoing vox, and standard 12-bar blues rhythms. See also: The Doors. Then there is the gritty dissonance and buzzsaw riffs of the pan-Atlantic punk explosion/implosion, the slamdancers and bangovers, the a-hygienic baggies and shaggy shoegazers of the American Gen-X counterculture. Take a bow, Ramones, Clash, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots. Follow it up with atonal crooning in that sneering, (in this case) not-quite-English nasal twinge that can only be salvaged by angular guitar play and the occasional instrumental breakdown. Hey, let’s give it up for the Stone Roses and the Jesus & Mary Chain! Oh, and Oasis and Blur… and maybe Pulp, too.

Now, I don’t mean to sound as though I’m harping on the BRMC for biting off huge chunks of source material from easily-recognized acts—criminey, it’s not as though Hayes, Been, and Jago are innovators in that area of pop-rock transgression, either. Seriously: Jet, anyone? Hell, even the name “Black Rebel Motorcycle Club” is lifted from a biker gang in the 1953 Marlon Brando flick, The Wild One, so it’s not as though BRMC are being subtle about their rampant borrowing. Come to think of it, that’s got to be a few points for sheer brazenness and bravado.

But, honestly, the lads in BRMC do an excellent job of mixing it all together so that it goes down smoothly. Sure, Baby 81 lead-in track “Took Out a Loan” is a bit of a slouch on the lyrical end… sounds like someone’s got a horrible line of credit debt, s’all, which is a shame, since the central guitar riff is quite tasty. Luckily, “Berlin” and its 1-2 punch of percussion and call-response, shout-along chorus reins things in quite nicely. Same goes for the acoustic splang and mumble-to-shout of “Weapon of Choice.”

Trippy guitar effects, stomp-along piano chords, weighty percussion, and affected vox swagger along in a drug-addled stupor for over six minutes in “Windows,” whereas “Cold Wind” takes a time warp back to the mid-90’s grunge era—hrm, where did I leave my copies of Purple and Nevermind? “Not What You Wanted” skips forward a few years for some Gallagher-esque action before “666 Conducer” crassly has its way with acoustic-lead blues-y rock. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Generally speaking, Hayes’s work as a lyricist is serviceable if ineloquent. He relies overmuch on the quick fix of romance (failed and otherwise) and rhyming couplets leading to over-repeated choruses in the style of Sir Paul McCartney. Not quite Wings-level redundancy, but a bit too close for comfort. As such, it’s fairly easy to lose yourself in the instrumental end of Baby 81—even then, you can only do so much with 4/4 power-trio structures and blues progressions before they start to bleed together, too.

It would be easy to simply dismiss Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Baby 81 as unoriginal and repetitive, but it often seems more like homage than outright theft. The sounds may be the same that you’ve heard a hundred times before, but they’re rendered in such a way that you can tell that Hayes, Been, and Jago really do love what they themselves have heard. In a way, Baby 81 is just a roundabout way of returning the favour. After all, imitation is the highest form of flattery… isn’t it?
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (June 6th, 2007)

Tags: audio, review, black rebel motorcycle club, baby 81, rca