Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Red Ink, 2005

REVIEW BY: Paul King


Being in a band can be a frustrating way to make a living at times. Imagine the situation; the band you formed in high school has risen to respectable international popularity since being signed to a major record label, you’ve released two reasonable selling and critically acclaimed albums and simultaneously managed to garner a decent sized cult following around the globe. Indeed, the future looks bright. Then, just when everything seems to be going fine, your drummer lets you down by succumbing to drug and alcohol problems. And let’s face it, it’s always the drummer! And as if that wasn’t enough, you’ve also fallen out with your record company and had to jump ship to a smaller independent label.

This is the situation that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club found themselves in, prior to the recording of their third album Howl. Although initially blamed on ‘internal conflict’ within the band, the truth of drummer Nick Jago’s departure (and subsequent reinstatement near the end of the recording sessions) was revealed to have been caused by his battle with drug and drink addiction. The story goes that without a drummer to accompany them, remaining members Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been were forced to stow the amplifiers and effects pedals and break out the acoustic guitars.

On this record, the band has stripped back their sound to its essential blues, folk and gospel influenced heart. Pushing the acoustic guitars and vocals to the front, whilst focusing more tightly on songwriting and melody. It’s these changes in sonic texture that are the first thing to hit you upon hearing Howl. It’s an album almost entirely free of the swathes of Jesus & Mary Chain inspired guitar noise previously associated with BRMC and in its place we get rootsy guitars, keening harmonica parts and rustic sounding percussion. This less cluttered approach pays off by highlighting the band’s song-writing skills, with most of the material on Howl ranking amongst the strongest and most emotionally resonant that the band has ever recorded.

The songs themselves range from the foot-stomping, back porch swagger of “Ain’t No Easy Way” (the lead single from the album) through to the gentle, dustbowl folk stylings of “Devil’s Waiting”. Taking in elements of gospel and country music along the way and blending them into BRMC’s own particular brand of dusty, world-weary my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Americana.

Whilst it’s easy to see this new direction as a total departure from their previously established sound, a closer examination of BRMC’s back catalogue reveals that these blues, country & gospel elements have always been present in their music. Songs like “Spread Your Love” and “Salvation” from their debut album as well as “And I’m Aching” from 2003’s Take Them On, On Your Own have these same influences at their core. In fact, album opener “Shuffle Your Feet” made it’s first appearance on the B-Side of the re-issued “Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘n’ Roll (Punk Song)” single back in 2002, albeit in a embryonic form. All that has happened with this album is that these influences have been pushed to the fore instead of being buried deep in the mix.

There really can be little doubt that it’s the band’s specific intention to evoke an air of vintage, bohemian Americana with this album. In fact, if there’s one complaint to be made about Howl, it’s that they have almost tried too hard to authenticate it. Firstly the album is named after Allen Ginsberg’s famous, 1950’s Beat Generation soliloquy and then the album is presented in a sleeve reminiscent of those old folk and blues albums of the 50’s and 60’s, complete with Side 1 and Side 2 track listings. Even going so far as to put fake age discoloration stains around the edges of the back cover like you find on vintage LP sleeves. 

All this is largely unnecessary, the songs stand tall and proud on their own without having the retro angle overplayed in the presentation of the album. The band would do well to take the advice of another Beat Generation sage, Jack Kerouac, when he said “Everything you feel will find it's own form.” The musical content of this album already tells us everything we need to know about BRMC’s new direction without the band having to resort to packaging gimmicks.

As previously noted, the majority of the songs on this album are strong and well arranged but standout tracks include “Gospel Song,” which initially comes on like a country cousin to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” before expanding into a glorious, tear streaked, celebration of salvation and redemption. Then there’s the menacing “Fault Line”, which paints a haunting picture of a heroin addict’s search for solace, set against a familiar ‘rising water’ metaphor. “Complicated Situation” is another fine song with a sound so drenched in coffeehouse ambiance and boho attitude that it could’ve been recorded during the sessions for Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.

It has to be said though; occasionally there are times on this album when BRMC fail to hit the mark, like on the ponderous title track “Howl” or the dreary “The Line” for example. But essentially, this album is a collection of moving performances that showcase Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at their most focused and song driven. Howl is a fine record and certainly worthy of reassessment by fans of both the indie/alternative scene and roots music. It provides a captivating snapshot of a born-again BRMC, growing up and wearing their hearts and influences on their sleeve.

Rating: A-

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© 2007 Paul King and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Red Ink, and is used for informational purposes only.