BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE
CLUB, "HOWL" (RCA) *** 1/2
While their first two
albums were best qualified as guilty pleasures -- with fuzz-drenched anthems
such as "What Ever Happened to My Rock and Roll" deriving most of their
power from slavishly imitating the Jesus and Mary Chain (which, after all,
wasn't around to provide that sort of kick itself anymore) -- the third
release from the Bay Area trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is an unexpected
stylistic departure, as well as a record of considerable depth and emotional
Dropped by their
original label, Virgin Records, Peter Hayes, Robert Been and Nick Jago
recorded "Howl" on their own dime, uncertain whether the 13 songs would ever
be released, or indeed if the group had a career left at all. Instead of
England's Creation Records roster, the inspiration this time came from older
strains of dark, cathartic and death-obsessed sounds -- American blues,
country, folk and gospel -- delivered with acoustic guitar as the primary
instrument, decorated with harmonica, autoharp, piano, trombone and a subtly
employed gospel choir, and laced with an inspired punk sneer.
Cynics may charge that
this is a move as contrived as the band's earlier thievery of the Mary Chain
formula, but the pleasures of the most cursory listen are enough to dismiss
that complaint, and "Howl" grows even more powerful on repeated spins. The
longing for redemption and the pain of regret expressed in songs such as
"Devil's Waitin'," "Ain't No Easy Way," "Still Suspicion Holds You Tight"
and "Weight of the World" aren't easily faked. But even if it is just
another pose, "Howl" stands as a collection of beautiful, haunting
roots-rock anthems in the vein of the Rolling Stones' classic "Wild Horses"
-- evidence of supremely soulful mimicry, even if the musicians aren't the
best (or the most original) minds of their generation.
PORNOGRAPHERS, "TWIN CINEMA" (MATADOR) *** 1/2
On their first two
albums, the loosely knit indie-rock/alt-country collective the New
Pornographers seemed like less than the sum of their parts: Their driving
force, Vancouver-based songwriter Carl "A.C." Newman, penned pleasantly
Kinks-flavored power-pop ditties, but they hardly seemed worthy of talents
such as Chicago's brass-voiced Neko Case or the ever-soulful Nora O'Connor.
"Twin Cinema" is the first time the band really lives up to its reputation
as an underground supergroup.
Newman and fellow
songwriter Dan Bejar have written their strongest collection of tunes to
date, as elliptical and inscrutable as ever in the lyrics (What exactly are
"The Jessica Numbers"? Beats me, nor do I have any idea what the group means
when it pleads, "Sing Me Spanish Techno"), but overflowing with indelible
melodies most often delivered via choruses of magnificently layered backing
vocals. Sure, there are some star turns -- Case shines on the Loretta
Lynn-inspired country weeper "These Are the Fables" -- but for the most part
these 14 songs are a seamless group effort and a perfect example of
orchestral pop, with trumpet, cello, pump organ and xylophone augmenting the
basic rock lineup and emphasizing the gorgeous vocal hooks.
Songs such as "The
Bleeding Heart Show" and "Streets of Fire" are guaranteed to have you
singing along by the second chorus the very first time you hear them, and
for once, the New Pornographers have delivered a disc strong enough to make
you hope its members put their individual careers on hold long enough to do
it justice in live performance.