Monday, August 22, 2005

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club


RCA Records

What does it take for a band to completely and utterly scrap its sound, turn 180 degrees and buy a new sonic wardrobe? In the case of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a West Coast trio that had specialized in noisy, ambient alt-rock, it takes a little “recording assistance” from roots-rock singer-songwriter and producer extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett.

“Howl,” the band’s third album, was “written, produced and performed by B.R.M.C,” according to a prideful credit in the liner notes. But “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” boardman Mr. Burnett’s fingerprints are all over this disc, a retro experiment in acoustic blues, gospel and folk. Gone are the sludge and white noise of the band’s acclaimed 2000 debut and its 2003 follow-up, “Take Them On, On Your Own”; its new fetishes are harmonica, Hammond organ and natural hand claps.

“I just want to be one true thing that don’t fade,” pledges singer-guitarist Peter Hayes on the churchy title track, on which an electric guitar makes a rare appearance.

“Howl” might seem like a stage-managed farce if B.R.M.C. didn’t play its songs with such skill and conviction, and with such apparent spiritual yearning. The ululation referred to in the album’s title is of the painful, as opposed to ecstatic, variety.

The opening cut, “Shuffle Your Feet,” a stomping blues that hitches a ride in Bob Dylan’s “Buick 6,” announces, with harmony-backed force: “Time won’t save your soul.” The hymn-like “Devil’s Waitin’” — just Mr. Hayes’ trembling voice and an acoustic guitar — contemplates judgment day. The troubled narrator of “Restless Sinner,” another solo turn by Mr. Hayes, played more menacingly, blends in with “the blind” in order to “hide his soul.” The wearied congregant of “Gospel Song” — on which bassist Robert Turner murmurs through a melancholy blues arpeggio — vows to “walk with Jesus ‘til I can’t go anymore.”

One can add to all this ecclesiastical sweating some run-of-the-mill existential distress, such as the backwoodsy folk of “Complicated Situation,” the furious bottleneck riffing of “Ain’t No Easy Way” and the self-flagellating “Sympathetic Noose.”

It’s obvious: B.R.M.C. went down to the crossroads and made a devilish deal.

Yet hope springs eternal on the gospel-infused “Promise,” featuring Mr. Turner’s father, Michael Been, the singer-songwriter who fronted college rockers the Call in the ‘80s, on piano.

With its message of “comfort” and “hope,” the song is unwisely sandwiched in the middle of “Howl,” when it might better have ended the set. Instead, the torpid, Velvet Undergound-y “The Line” (plus an experimental hidden track) closes out “Howl” on a downbeat note.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter “Howl.”

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