It might be cynical to say that these days, few bands as popular -- at least in the mainstream -- as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club show as much genuine creative evolution as it has since its inception in the late '90s. Staggering as it sounds, the group does seem to have formed on its own, writes all its songs on its own, has a genuine rock 'n' roll core and is signed to a major label. Did the members leave something special at a crossroads somewhere? Possibly. I was thinking that that role had already been cast, played ably for nearly a decade by the White Stripes. And yet, wonders never cease.
The name comes from the gang of hooligans Marlon Brando led in the pivotal film The Wild One (1953) -- it sounds dated now, like the He-Man Woman Haters Club of Dennis The Menace fame. The band certainly looked like a gang (in fact, two founding members met in high school in the Bay Area, an excellent place to foment rock 'n' roll petulance), with messy, stylized choppy haircuts and blue jeans that looked convincingly dirty in publicity shots for early albums like 2003's Take Them On, On Your Own. Black Rebel is possibly the best of the disaffected drone-rock bands of the late '90s, with a heavy Jesus and Mary Chain influence and a lyrical heart both jaded and wistful, as if you might be able to catch them at the right time and maybe break their hearts, had they not been ground into shards already so many times before. The band formed in the post Paisley Underground years in San Francisco, likely picking up on the psychedelic trends of the time, and infused the swirling love sound with a little bit of grit and grunge. It's as if Oasis had met the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the two together had lost a fight to Iggy and the Stooges, but it was close.
In 2004, Virgin Records unceremoniously dropped the act, and shortly afterwards, founding drummer Nick Jago left the band for reasons that were purportedly heavy with rock cred: booze, drugs and a clash with the heavy touring schedule and publicity push that came from being signed to a major label. The remaining band members responded with 2004's Howl on RCA Records, a departure from the heavy sonic drone and fuzz of the first two records. Howl stripped their songs down to the core of their influences, attempting to be a spare, stark, minimalist blues, country and gospel album. It accidentally raised an interesting paradox about the nature of artistic inheritance. If bands like the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things augmented and translated rough and dirty blues and R&B in the '60s to something clangier, janglier and more in the moment for the young white kids whose ear they had -- and if a generation (or so) after that the Stooges roughed up the same sound traveling by way of the Stones -- and then a whole generation of Britpop later, yet more bands play reimagined R&B whose lineage still goes back to Mick and Keef -- what happens when an act like the BRMC tries to strip it back down?
With Howl, the answer was disappointingly little. What was intended to be raw and soulful turned out to be oddly drained of spirit. The album mimicked the holler and shout well enough, and infused slide guitar and pedal steel in the foreground with just enough background fuzz and bombast to keep a listener aware of who it was. In the end, however, the album hit all the relevant marks dutifully but was unconvincing and would have been completely forgettable if not for the members' earnest and genuine talent. They did mean well, though it was disappointingly obvious that they were singing as if from a movie they'd seen about the hard time killing floor blues, and not from the soul.
Happily, this year's Baby 81 record sees Black Rebel sneaking back toward the land of growling engines and dense fuzz tones, shifting full force back into garage-bent psychedelia and overstuffed walls of twisted sound. Critics have cautiously lauded Baby 81's return to form, with its tumbling organ and staticky, gear-grinding guitar. It's an aggressive, rather masculine record, without the asexual junkie snideness of influences like the aforementioned Jesus and Mary Chain or contemporaries like the Walkmen, with a dark, sexy charge burning through the guitar haze. The return to form, though, doesn't have quite the conviction that the early fuzz-rock tour de forces had (boring lyrics here, a weirdly out of place power ballad there), leaving the listener wondering if the band is, ironically, trying too hard to please by going back to being dangerous rock jerks. When really, all we want is for them to be rebelling against whatever we've got. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
9 p.m. Wed., June 13
Republic, 828 S. Peters St., 528-8282; www.republicnola.com
- Tessa Angus
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club tries to return to form with Baby 81.