- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Baby 81 RCA

When the classic-rock radio format appeared in the early 1980s, it was a signal the rock era was basically over, and along with it, the heyday of the Woodstock generation as the focal point of pop culture. Madonna, Michael Jackson and the burgeoning genre of hip-hop were taking over the airwaves. Rock itself had splintered into subgenres of metal, punk and new wave. Listeners who wanted a daily dose of their favorite music found that the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Creedence were exiled to the same sort of broadcast ghetto that had claimed doo-wop, big band and swing.

Reports of the death of rock were premature, however. As a result, the classic-rock radio format found itself in an oddly expansive mode, subsuming the album-oriented rock of the 1970s, the iconic alternative bands of the 1980s such as the Talking Heads and R.E.M. and grunge hit makers such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

So what do the critics mean when they describe the current rock revival? More than anything, it signifies the ascendancy of a generation of music writers who were in grade school when video killed the radio star.

There’s no denying that the new spate of garage-rock revivalists such as the White Stripes and the Strokes are talented and energetic. Even though the new old rock isn’t rooted in nostalgia for time or place, neither does it have much new to offer. More critically, it is not rooted in any social, artistic or political protest; it is not throwing off the shackles of anything.

Rather, it is a kind of premature antiquarianism that revels in old fuzz-box amps and analog wawa pedals in much the same way that a car collector might prize the polished wood exterior of his Packard wagon.

This lengthy preface is only to point out that although “Baby 81,” the fourth studio album from the San Francisco-based trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, is occasionally stirring, it does not linger in the memory. The guitar riffs, drum fills and occasional harmonies do little but remind the listener of some other, better song.

The album wears its debt to history on its sleeve. The first track, “Took Out a Loan,” opens with an old-school stereo effect, with a growling guitar dominating the left channel while the vocal track plays on the right. The drums are loud and steady; the reverb is up. For BRMC fans, the album at least will mark a return to the band’s cranking electric roots after the ill-conceived “Howl,” the 2005 release that paid tribute to the acoustic side of the 1960s with Dylanesque open tunings and psychedelic lyricism.

It’s not that the album is especially bad, but it is characterized by a lack of ambition. It’s the sort of album that could be folded into the mix on any classic-rock radio station without the disc jockey or the listeners missing a beat. Even an epic nine-minute track called “American X” invites, through its cadences and sonic allusions, unfavorable comparisons with cathartic Doors numbers such as “When the Music’s Over” and “The End.”

On the song “Berlin,” singer Peter Hayes asks, “What happened to the revolution?” It’s a good question, but the answer isn’t to be found among the 13 tracks on “Baby 81.”

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