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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Brian Jonestown Massacre
Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective
Tee Pee Records

Rating: 8/10 ?

February 21, 2005
Staring out at you with the blank look of an addict, Anton Newcombe is brandishing a gun. His face, crudely sketched to accentuate his sharp features, is gaunt and fierce. He looks like a 60s radical who's just robbed a bank and hears the police sirens getting closer. The cause was irrelevant. The act itself was the important thing. He'd just struck a blow for the freaks. He'd made the bourgeois pigs in their nice, neat houses with the white picket fences nervous. That was the juice, man. That was the juice.

Or at least that's what I thought of when I first came across the cover to Brian Jonestown Massacre's Strung Out In Heaven. I was in one of those faceless chain record stores, digging through the cut-out bin for bargains on forgotten cassettes. And there was that silver-and-black case that worked like a pack of cigarettes and was decked out with those cool 70s cop show graphics. And there was Newcombe, in stereo, looking desperate and cornered. As I raced back to my car, I thought to myself, "This is going to blow my mind." Was I ever wrong.

To be blunt, Strung Out In Heaven was a mess, the product of excess, exhaustion and infighting that would rend apart the fabric of what was the core of the band. It was dense and unapproachable, aimless and undefined in a sort of nihilistic way that made you hate to be in the same room with it.

The good people at Tee Pee Records must have thought so too because there isn't a single song off Strung Out In Heaven on Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective, the recently released 38-song primer on a band that always seemed on the verge of something big - and somehow always managed to fuck it up.

It wasn't for lack of ambition. Listen to albums like Give It Back, Take It From The Man!, The Satanic Majesties' Second Request and Thank God For Mental Illness - all released in 1996 and 1997, mind you, and all considered among the band's best - and you realize they were planning on rewriting rock history. Here was the subversion, the haunting, melodic drone of the Velvet Underground.

Here was the dark magic and mysticism of Brian Jones and those early Rolling Stones' records, and the psychedelica of Donovan dragged kicking and screaming into a world infected with the single-minded monotony of grunge. And best of all, they'd somehow built a bridge connecting the vaporous sonic Milky Way of shoegazers like Ride and My Bloody Valentine with tough 60s garage rock. Fuck Aquarius. This was the dawning of a new age. Only I'd missed it.

The drugs seemed to be working for the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It's no secret their consumption of mind-altering chemicals knew no bounds; at the time, neither did the band's creativity. Open up the gilded gates to Disc 1 of Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective and there's Anton welcoming you with the woozy Sgt. Pepper-esque introduction "All Around You (Intro)" from Their Satanic Majesties Request. "You know, a lot of people are afraid of the unknown but we know you're the sort of thrill seeker that's not afraid of anything, and you'll be richly rewarded," he says flatly.

Then the stinging guitars and vocal euphoria of "Who", off Take It From The Man!, hits you right in the face like a hail storm. Sample the Middle Eastern sonic opium of Give It Back's "Servo", with its sitar-like guitar sound and exotic, Arabian cymbals, or the stylish Spaghetti Western vibe of "It Girl", taken from Thank God For Mental Illness. "Straight Up And Down" and the gritty, dark wave rocker "Vacuum Boots", from Take It From The Man, take the pop jangle of The Byrds and turns it inside out, exposing a bluesy, fuzzed-out reverb lining. Hazier and more laconic are "Anenome", off Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request, and "If Love Is The Drug", a 2004 single - it with breathy female backing vocals and a trippy, but dull organ melody that the Dandy Warhols want back. In the liner notes, Christopher Tucker, a one-time collaborator who came up with similar chord progressions to this BJM song, says it's just a "variation on [the Dandy's] 'Minnesota.'"

And he's right. It's larceny - or something very close to it - and it's an accusation BJM has had to fend off more than once. Theft was rampant on BJM's debut, Methodrone. Or so a lot of critics would have you believe.

No doubt, the band was playing under the influence of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. The warped, heavily layered guitars of "She's Gone" are a dead giveaway. But that record also produced "Wisdom", with its sneaky mid-tempo groove and airy guitar strumming, and the lovely shoegazer epic "Evergreen", found here on Disc 2, which set the stage for 2003's amazing "Prozac Vs. Heroin." Deftly arranged with sweeping strings and soaring on a melody that's lost in the London fog of Marianne Faithfull and swimming in rich, vintage guitar cognac, it's the best song Newcombe's written in years.

As good as Disc 1 is, it doesn't stack up to the fantastic cache of songs that awaits you in Disc 2. Savor the swaggering, Technicolor glory of snotty, psyche-rockers "Oh Lord" and "Talk-Action=Shit", and the beautifully crude Byrds-style pop of "This Is Why You Love Me." More of a history lesson for recent converts, Disc 1 has none of the rarities that makes Disc 2 such a vital document for longtime followers. Unearthed are the live WFMU Radio treasures "Let Me Stand Next To Your Flower", with the melancholic sway and dark guitar jangle of early Smiths' records, and "Hide And Seek", featuring more of the bruised, rough-cut 60s psychedelica-shoegazer blend BJM is known for. Nothing, however, compares to the stunning, previously unreleased WFMU 2003 recording of "Swallowtail." The aerial guitar dogfight is spectacular to hear. Weaving in and out of storm clouds of corrosive, reverb-laced guitar are smooth, glassy textures that seem to fly and flip through the air like trapeze artists.

Perhaps a boxed set would have been more appropriate, given the band's prolific output. But give Tee Pee Records credit. Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective is an exhaustive profile of a band many consider one of the most innovative musical collectives around, and I think they're mostly right.

But there's also this sense that something is holding the Brian Jonestown Massacre back. Though Newcombe can pen a masterpiece like "Swallowtail", there's also a lot of dead acoustic weight in the catalog, like the narcotic, faux-folk dullness and lyrical saccharine of "Open Heart Surgery" and Thank God For Mental Illness' "Stars." That's the Tepid part of this wild and woolly Wonderland. But seeing them fail is half the fun. Would Brian Jonestown Massacre be as interesting if they didn't engage in very public, onstage fisticuffs? Would their best work be lauded as much if it weren't for the messy, off-the-cuff recordings and lost-in-space melodies, and also the outright forgeries they've also be accused of?

Without all the drama and the willingness to fail badly, Brian Jonestown Massacre would be just another indie band that couldn't get its shit together behind the scenes long enough to make a coherent piece of art. I love how pompous they are. I love that dysfunctional, traveling circus. And I love that Anton is still around, trying to make great art for the sake of making great art, while at the same time still chasing that dream of a major label deal. It's a fascinating story that doesn't have an ending ... yet. If Newcombe knows what it is, he's not giving it away.

Reviewed by Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he\'ll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other reviews by Peter Lindblad



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