Monday, May 7, 2012

Album: The Brian Jonestown Massacre, "Aufheben" (A Records)

It's been years since anything approached 'normal' for The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a band that has always excelled at taking upside down and making it look rightside up; the opposite is also exactly true.
It's been years since anything approached "normal" for The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a band that has always excelled at taking upside down and making it look rightside up; the opposite is also exactly true.
After 2003's apprehensive feint toward modern sounds (electronica, the theoretical proliferation of glowsticks, dancing on designer chemicals, the whole nine yards) on "...And This Is Our Music," bandleader Anton Newcombe seemed to retreat into a hole filled with disconnected bits and pieces of contemporary pop trivia -- "My Bloody Underground" sounded like it was recorded on the other side of a flimsy motel wall, and the album that followed that two years later, 2010's "Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?", improved on that scenario by sounding like it was recorded on the other side of a battlefield. Inside the weird snowglobe that is the BJM, flecks of recognition appeared and glimmered, briefly, then vanished, subsumed on the whole by a massive wave of counter-feedback and unpleasant electronic skritch from somewhere deep and unwholesome inside Newcombe's soul.
For a band that started out prolifically popping out masterful re-enactments of long-gone musical movements -- "Take It From the Man!" is precisely the 1966 that the Rolling Stones were never able to get back to after Altamont, for one thing, but Newcombe seemed to own a map -- this recent malaise has been rather alarming. Perhaps age and his well-documented battles with drugs and insanity had finally worn him down to a nub. It certainly seemed possible, maybe even likely.
That said, it should come as a mild surprise that the band's latest set, "Aufheben," is compelling and lovely from the outset; Newcombe's recent relocation to Berlin, along with his reunion with former BJM founding member Matt Hollywood, has rekindled his imagination, or at least his groove jones. The set kicks off with five minutes of getting-to-know-you-again wordless (not counting monkey and rooster noises) psychedelia, heavily colored with Middle Eastern swag. While it's a standard issue BJM trope, the Stereolab-like "Viholliseni Maala" (featuring an icy cool lead vocal sung entirely in Finnish by Eliza Karmasalo) opens the door down a new hallway -- if it's not Krautrock, it's acceptably close, and you can hear the ends of wires sizzling and machines sparking and humming under the gorgeous paintbrush textures. Newcombe himself doesn't deign to come in until the album's third cut, the laid back "Gaz Hilarant," which in essence borrows the playbook from the band's archetypical 1995-ish "Anenome" era with a slightly worse for the wear Anton Newcombe moaning and mumbling, clutching a bannister, slipping down the stairs no matter how hard he tries to stand up straight.
"I Want to Hold Your Other Hand" continues the image of a man stumbling and grasping for words -- "i am having a really hard time coming up with lyrics to finish the album and the stress is sort of getting to me" he admitted in YouTube comments to a pre-release 2010 version of the song -- but the music is bracing, firm and honest, as if something primal has finally burnt clean inside of Anton Newcombe. He steps forward more forcefully and articulately on the album's second half, but the set begins to rely perhaps a bit too strongly on repetition and an explicit call to its own past -- "The Clouds Are Lies" could literally have been lifted from 1998's "Strung Out in Heaven." Did anyone check just to make sure? Likewise, "Stairway to the Best Party in the Universe" takes things back to the druggy den of the "Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request." It's still a great party, even though you've been to it before: there are people having a happening in here and you don't know where you left your shoes and you think you just met Jack Nicholson.
One strains to hear Newcombe define even one variety of the "Seven Kinds of Wonderful," but his murky vocals are buried neck-deep in the busy mix. There's a song here itching to get out, but it's not clear which wall it's clawing at. "Walking Up to Hand Grenades" is not entirely sure what it wants to be either, early swagger met at the gates of expectation by hordes of confusion. They shake hands and agree to go their separate ways, and the song continues apace for several uneventful minutes (way, way, way back in the mix, you can just make out Hollywood scratching out his definitive slithery guitar lines, which makes the trip -- barely -- worthwhile.)
Closing with a song that reminds everyone of two albums that not many people wanted to hear might not have been the best strategy, but "Blue Order/New Monday" is it, a tough slog even under optimal conditions, but deflating in this context. It's seven minutes of mid-tempo arm-whirling with swirly synthesizer noises thrown in at no extra charge. And as lifeless as it is, it's not enough to derail the mostly exceptional "Aufheben," an album titled after a German word that can mean both destroy and preserve; it is a pretty fair bet Anton did not pick this title randomly out of a hat.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review - The Brian Jonestown Massacre "Aufheben"

Aufheben is a German word meaning both "destroy" and "preserve". Anton Newcombe has said he loves the idea of artistic creation that involves destroying something to preserve it, like a sculptor might take a clay creation apart to invent something new.

Now sober for the past 2 years, Newcombe is utilizing aufheben to reinvent the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It's been nearly a decade since the documentary film DIG! captured BJM in all their decadent dysfunction, a truly gifted rock band out of control. But that image persisted, reinforced by many years of touring where people came out seemingly to watch Newcombe melt down, taunting and egging him on, and not infrequently getting their wish. At times brilliant, at times sad spectacle, and often in the same night, what got overlooked about the Brian Jonestown Massacre was the music. This was unfortunate because more often than not over 13 full length releases and now 20 years, this band has been remarkably good.

But give this band credit - they've kept what was great, cleaned up the mess, and moved forward both personally and artistically.  They have managed to sober up and not only still get down but do their thing even better.

Aufheben is a bold step for the band, a highly cinematic work, with many international influences, no doubt inspired by the band's frequent touring around the world, and Newcombe now residing in Germany. Newcombe says he was going for something that sounded like a movie soundtrack.

Aufheben has transcendental elements, some instrumental songs, and it sounds particularly good played loud on a long highway drive. And those who love Newcombe's frequent play on words on new song titles with well known musical touchpoints will not be disappointed here with "Blue Order/New Monday" and "I Wanna Hold Your Other Hand".

You can listen to the entire CD here:

Here's a terrific track "Stairway to the Best Party in the Universe":

One more, "The Clouds are Lies":

This CD also marks the return of guitarist and songwriter Matt Hollywood to the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The band did much of its best work with Hollywood. His more straight ahead garage/pop rock was always a perfect compliment to Newcombe's more echoey and out there psychedelia.  The band also recruited Will Caruthers (Spacemen 3).

I was inspired to review this record seeing them live in Portland last Friday. The show was spectacular - focused, professional, well paced, and all out rockin', the newer material highly effectively introduced around all the old hits. And 5 guitar players! Newcombe has gone through a very high number of personnel through the years, but has assembled a highly skilled and complimentary collective now.

I highly recommend catching this tour:
May Tue 8th - Denver CO- Bluebird Theater
May Wed 9th - Salt Lake City UT- Urban Lounge
May Fri 11th - San Francisco CA- The Fillmore
May Sat 12th - Los Angeles CA- The Wiltern
Thursday 17th May Metro Theatre, Sydney
Friday- 18th May ANU Refectory, Canberra
Saturday-19th May Forum Theatre, Melbourne - SOLD OUT
Sunday-20th May- The Gov, Adelaide
Tuesday-22nd May Astor Theatre, Perth
Thursday-24th May Hi-Fi, Brisbane
Friday- 25th May Level One-Newcastle Leagues Club, Newcastle
11 June 12 Berlin - Lido
12 June 12 Groningen - Vera
13 June 12 Rennes - L'Etage
14 June 12 Toulouse - Le Bikini
16 June 12 Spain - Azkena Rock Festival
17 June 12 Montpellier - Le Rockstore
18 June 12 Zurich - Abart
19 June 12 Bologna - Bolognetti on the rocks
20 June 12 Dudingen - Bad Bonn
22 June 12 Aarhus - Vox Hall
23 June 12 Copenhagen - Amager Bio
24 June 12 Oslo - Rockerfeller
25 June 12 Helsinki - Tavastia
26 June 12 Stockholm - Strand
27 June12 Malmo - Debaser
28 June 12 Amsterdam Bitterzoet
29 June 12 Nijmegen - Doornroosje
30 June 12 France - Le Rock Dans Tous Ses Etats
01 July 12 France - Eurockennes
03 July 12 Clermont - Ferrand, La Coopérative de Mai
04 July 12 Paris - Le Trianon
06 July 12 Scotland - T in the Park
07 July 12 London - Shepherds Bush Empire
08 July 12 Manchester - Ritz Ballroom
09 July 12 Birmingham - Academy 2
11 July 12 Tel Aviv - Barby
Thu Aug 16th Minneapolis MN @ First Avenue
Fri Aug 17th Milwaukee MS @ Turner Hall
Sat Aug 18th Chicago IL @ The Metro
Mon Aug 20th Atlanta GA @ Variety Playhouse
Tue Aug 21st Carrboro NC @ Cats Cradle
Wed Aug 22nd Washington DC @ 9.30Club
Thu Aug 23rd Philadelphia PA @ Union Transfer
Fri Aug 24th Boston MA @ Royale
Sat Aug 25th NY NY @ Webster Hall

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