As far as about-faces go, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club‘s change from shoe-gazing garage-rockers to cattle-grazing wayfaring strangers could be described as pretty major, if one was prone to massive bouts of understatement. For a band feted, then subsequently dismissed, as just your basic black-clad The Jesus And Mary Chain worshippers to come back with an album of acoustic, folky Americana is one of the more surprising musical developments of this year.
Initially, it’s difficult to swallow. There are a lot of questions to be answered, and while it’s true that their third-album hand may have been forced by drummer Nick Jago’s reluctance to do anything as mundane as turn up for gigs and the disagreements with Virgin that followed the poor sales of Take Them On, On Your Own, it’s tempting to be a little weary. Are their hearts in it? Is this all a ruse? Can they pull this off?
To begin with, it seems not. Neither of the opening tracks do anything persuasive; Shuffle Your Feet’s chanting and handclapping goes down the road marked ‘hoedown’ never to be seen again, and Howl’s efforts to countrified a squalling guitar with slices of organ and harmonica falls somewhat short, but after two false dawns Devil’s Waitin’ marks the start of the transformation becoming far more convincing.
“I’ve seen the battle and I’ve seen the war / And the life out here is the life I’ve been sold”, Peter Hayes sings, matter-of-fact and resigned, the simple handpicked guitar starkly ringing out, and you almost believe its 1962 and you’re in some dark dive watching Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash do a turn. It would be tempting to dismiss it as a fluke, until they best it: firstly on the distant, wind swept Fault Line and then the rat-a-tat storytelling syllables of Complicated Situation.
And by the time the time closing track The Line comes around you’re willing to forgive the schmaltzy piano-led Promise and the ploddingly portentous religious drone of Gospel Song as mere teething troubles. Especially as the last track marks quite a watershed, being the single most cohesive stab at what you might have previously imagined a Country & Western BRMC would be: dark, foreboding and creeping towards a big swirling guitar led finish with malevolent intent. It’s the best thing on the album.
Rebirths are hard, especially for bands who haven’t exactly displayed a massive range of musical influences previously, so for BRMC to totally reinvent themselves like this is nothing if not brave. It’s also mostly successful. It isn’t their best record, but as an acknowledgement that slabs of feedback-laden noise weren’t going to take them much further, and change was needed for an attempt at a long-term career, it’s promising.
“When did you stop caring?” they ask at the end of The Line, and tempting as it might have been to say “Somewhere about 2003, same as you” the grand transformation that Howl marks mean it’s no longer so. BRMC go folk, and pull it off. Whatever next…