Permit me an anachronism. This is the album that should have defined their career, not the 2008 retread of old times that was Baby 81. This is the album that ought to have said to the world ‘Hey, we’re BRMC, we’ve got balls and we’re not afraid to play this kind of music… and yes, this makes us sound hard, not sound like we’re trying to sound hard.’
That’s right, chickens, this is a hard record. God is on their side, or so they constantly proclaim. Having sped through the garage rock revolution as the American answer (and question) to the Datsuns, the Hives, and the West Coast’s mope to the Strokes’ East Cost strut, here, their best album by far, their most varied, textured, emotional, epic, and downright sexy platter, Black Rebel Motorcyle Club sound a) black, b) rebellious, c) like the wide open road and d) like a damn good band.
Howl kicks off with ‘Shuffle Your Feet’, the ragged street choir effect chants ‘Time won’t save our souls’ and then an acoustic stomper, complete with handclaps and harmonicas, shuffles its way along, singing of peaceful protests, not knowing when he’ll see his baby, and generally sounding pretty bloody spiritual. It’s like a garage rock revival hymn, and by God do these boys sound like they’re on some kind of precipice, teetering between heaven and hell.
The title track, all droning Hammond and tympani, could have been an outtake from the sessions for Jeff Beck’s first album, that’s how highly I rate this tune. Segueing into the country-ish lament ‘Devil’s Waitin”, the Club certainly remember how to drop their ‘n’s – Hayes and Been channel a lot of great players on this album, with Dylan being my first point of reference here.
‘Ain’t No Easy Way’ returns to the stomp of the opening cut, the harmonica battling against slide guitars and my head bobbing in agreement with the simple sentiments, as well as the awesome groove. This is the kind of soulful, serious music that some bands try for and fall far short, and yet the solidity of this writing unit keeps on coming. ‘Suspicion Holds You Tight’ once again gets a Dylan-esque treatment, but the overarching feeling here is of the Band; there’s more of a collective feel than most Dylan songs, where a dominant personality always shone forth. Both here, and on albums like The Band and Music from Big Pink, Robertson hid behind characters, and here, the band become, as a collective, Southern and Western drifters, playing for a few bucks here and there and lamenting life in America – you can smell the dust, and feel the sun on your back, as you hear these grooves.
‘Fault Line’ is a sweet little side-long glance, followed by two of the best songs on the album by far, ‘Promise’ and ‘Weight of the World’. The former, piano led, brings to mind a relaxed evening with the missus, with just that slight tinge of melancholy that never leaves the life of the drifter, while the latter is a tense, tightly wound message to a loved one, with a tune sent down from the heavens in a whiskey soaked moment, I imagine. ‘Restless Sinner’ and ‘Gospel Song’ work as a pair, with songs of explanation and redemption, building up to a moment of class in ‘Complicated Situation’, another acoustic ballad – voice, guitar, harmonica: can he sound more like mid-60s Dylan, except with better production?
A note on that, by the way – self produced this most certainly is not, with help from T-Bone Burnett putting this in some kind of stylistic context. His treatment of the vocals deserves the most credit, as well as the live sound that the band have created here, really giving this a down-home, back-yard kind of feel. Slowing the pace down, and sounding a bit more garagey, vocally at any rate, and with their trademark drone, ‘Sympathetic Noose’ is the most Velvet Underground influenced tune on here, whilst still taking a healthy dose of Burnett’s country medicine.
Epic closer ‘The Line’, which takes almost 3 minutes just to fade out on a slowly dying church organ, takes this marriage of garage rock and country bluesey gospel to its logical, overblown (well, two thirds of these chaps are from California) conclusion: an 8 minute lament of sheer majesty. It’s not often I say that about an album without a single moment where I can’t air-guitar along/isn’t jazz – there’s something here, something missing from a lot of their peers, contemporaries and a lot of rock in general: there’s soul.
The gospel and blues influences heard here aren’t just in the lyrics, the sound, or the style, they’re in the passion and the power of the music to move me. Heartily recommended for anyone who likes their rock laid-back, but powerful.