Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
es, it’s acoustic: the fuzzboxes have been largely replaced with slide guitar and harmonica, the Stooges/Jesus and Mary Chain/Spiritualized influences subsumed nearly entirely back into blues, folk and country. Yes, while the modernist, glowingly skuzzy production touches of Take Them On, On Your Own have vanished the penchant for the occasional political comment vague enough to be imported straight from the 60s remains. Yes, here they often sound like early White Stripes if they were actually a band and Jack White was slightly less ostentatious. All of this deserves to be mentioned.
But it’s also all pretty unimportant. A trawl through the back catalog illustrates that this sound has always been a major part of BRMC’s, one of many reasons that the early “cut rate JAMC” comparisons were as lazy and inaccurate as the “BRMC goes country” tags Howl might receive in some quarters. Even something as barnstorming, and as seemingly tied to the attendant distortion, as “Six Barrel Shotgun” would work just as well as an acoustic stomper. And that’s exactly what they do here: these are the same songs Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have always had, but with arrangements that emphasize the non-distorted, non-heavy and non-rock elements of their music.
All of which means that those who found BRMC to be nothing more than lifeless rehashes of a particular tradition of guitar rock will probably find Howl wince-inducing. But at least those listeners won’t be hung up on pointless questions of “authenticity” these sorts of loving atavisms sometimes attract. This band has the same right as anyone to appropriate this kind of sound, and the skill with which they do it is the only important issue. The humming “Still Suspicion Holds You Tight” and “Promise” (with Carole King piano, no less) are the best ballads the band has yet worked up, “Fault Line” and “Devil’s Waiting” are surprisingly rich solo acoustic guitar laments, and “Ain’t No Easy Way” and “Shuffle Your Feet” kick up the dust in an entertaining fashion I had suspected the band were incapable of without their amps.
But the real highlights are the title track and “The Line.” “Howl” calls to mind the clutch of woozily psychedelic songs that actually formed the meat of their debut (particularly “Head Up High” and “As Sure As The Sun”) with a wavering organ and strong work from the rhythm section before lapsing into a sun-dappled and dazed sing-along. “The Line” is actually two songs, but mercifully the band keeps the pause in between to a minimum. First, there’s a tense march that skirts the edge of eruption before defusing into a lament of “when did you stop caring?” After the brief pause, there’s some conversation and an organ drone starts up. Using just that drone and a spare vocal, it’s the most beautiful thing the band has done yet. This second half doesn’t feel like a hidden track and, taken together, the two form an even stronger close to the album than Take Them On…’s blistering “Heart + Soul.”
Like that record, and unlike their debut, Howl is surprisingly solid. Those who naturally approach the record with a sense of trepidation, should give it a chance: it will only take a few listens to abandon your preconceptions of what BRMC should sound like and begin to appreciate Howl for what it actually is.