I saw The Brian Jonestown Massacre live some 6-8 times from 1998-2005, and each time was a fascinating experience. On any given night you might hear some great psychedelic music, you might get a long night of inter-band fights and rants, or some combination of the two. No matter the outcome, you were always assured of one thing – something you saw or heard at the show would stick in your memory for a long time. The band – a loose and ever-evolving conglomerate of spaced-out loons centered around Anton Newcombe – seemed tailor-made for some kind of biographical accounting. Ondi Timoner’s 2004 documentary Dig! told their story up until that point, but it focused too heavily on the more sensationalistic aspects of the band, minimizing the hard work and artistic foresight that made them worth caring about in the first place. Keep Music Evil carries the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s story through to the modern day, and attempts to right some of Dig!’s historical wrongs by painting a more well-rounded portrait of the band’s activities and musical output.
I’ll give author Jesse Valencia this – he put a lot of time and effort into this book, having spent almost a decade gathering and collating information from 125 people in, and connected to, the band, even using my interview with Anton for a brief quip on the recording of Thank God For Mental Illness. That Anton Newcombe didn’t contribute directly to the book is unfortunate, but hardly a stake in its heart. Dave Simpson was able to write The Fallen, a great book on The Fall – a band whose story has some obvious parallels with the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s – without Mark E. Smith’s input; and besides, Anton’s accounting of his past is usually driven by egotistic hyperbole rather than historical accuracies and insights, so it’s no great loss. The real issue with Keep Music Evil is simple – Valencia is the wrong “writer” for this story. The word “writer” is in parentheses because the book has so many mistakes, formatting issues, poorly structured sentences, and incorrect word choices that it’s hard for me to include Valencia in the same professional umbrella as Kurt Vonnegut. Focusing on the one slice of the book that takes place in New York – where I can fact-check Valencia – and a litany of mistakes are uncovered. Valencia refers to a show with Dead Meadow at The Mercury Lounge – it took place at The Bowery Ballroom. Valencia further twists the knife in the Bowery Ballroom’s back by referring to it as being in Brooklyn (it’s in Manhattan). He also refers to an apartment in Manhattan on 1st Avenue and Avenue A, which is logistically impossible since they run parallel to each other. None of these errors are terribly important, but they make me wonder just what other mistakes are out there masquerading as facts. There’s also times when Valencia’s prose-work is just straight up annoying, like when he refers to Mara Keagle’s vocals on “Anemone” as “like mercury crawling down the tip of a ballistic missile”. I have no idea what that description is meant to convey, and I bet he doesn’t either. Even if I could forgive all the mistakes and bad writing (did anyone actually copy-edit this book?) the story of The Brian Jonestown Massacre is just too vast, with too many people shifting in and out of the band’s orbit for Valencia’s meager talents to herd the long list of characters and events into an organized and coherent whole.
In the prologue, Valencia mentions that he first heard The Brian Jonestown Massacre in 2008 after taking four hits of acid. Based on the book he’s written, maybe he should have stopped at three.
I found The Lovely Eggs’ music charming when I first heard their early recordings a little over a decade back. Married couple Holly Ross (guitar/vocals) and David Blackwell (drums) landed on a winning formula of ramshackle punk rock, made unique by Ross’ snarky lyrics and unapologetically British accent. Compared to her, Liam Gallagher sounds like a Texas hillbilly. What I liked most was that, their songs were rudimentary, yet still somehow sounded like they were teetering on the edge of falling apart – like one missed drum beat could just grind the whole thing to a screeching halt at any given moment.
Fast forward to 2018, and The Lovely Eggs, now something of a cult success in England, are back with their self-released fifth full-length album, This is Eggland. Ross and Blackwell are still very much themselves on this album – there’s cheeky songs with titles like “Dickhead” and “Would You Fuck” (though, in Ross’ hands a more accurate title may have been “Would You Fook”), and they still run zero risk of being confused with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Outside of those constants, The Lovely Eggs beefed up their sound considerably for this release. First, they have Dave Fridmann producing, which is a major coup for the band. After all he’s produced major albums from indie institutions like Spoon, The Flaming Lips, and Low, though I’ll always remember him most fondly as a member of Mercury Rev. Fridmann really goes to town here, adding all kinds of reverb, tape loops and stereo panning effects to fill in the empty spaces previously found between the guitar and drums. The instruments themselves sound like they’ve been souped up too – giving every song an anthemic quality that practically sounds genetically engineered for European festival circuit crowds. The new sheen sounds amazing on each of This Is Eggland’s eleven songs. I especially like “Wiggy Giggy”, which is basically The Lovely Eggs’ “Ca Plane Por Moi”, and the aforementioned “Dickhead”, which segues between Cramps-y garage stomp and ’90s Buzz Bin-era alternative rock at breakneck speed. The problem is that, over the course of 40 minutes the album’s unrelenting pumped up sound is a bit fatiguing on the ears. Picture listening to a brickwalled chorus of “Gigantic” by The Pixies for 2/3 of an hour and that’s pretty much how you feel after spending time in Eggland. Nevertheless, these are wildly fun songs for serious times, and totally worth seeking out.
It only takes the first minute of “Currency”, the opening track of the fifth Black Angels album, for the now-familiar Black Angels sound to rear its head. Various permutations of the song’s pounding mid-tempo groove and tom-heavy drums have been part of pretty much every Black Angels release going back to their 2005 debut EP. While that formula has created a strong “brand identity” for the band (Death Song is their third straight album to debut in the Billboard Top 100, assuming that still means something in 2017), it’s somewhat frustrating that they aren’t progressing from release to release, or delivering any surprises. As much as I like Death Song (the album – not the cheap Velvet Underground pun of the title) I’m at the point where I want The Black Angels to give me something more to consider than the same ol’ Velvets/Stooges/Spacemen 3/BJM/13th Floor Elevators-inspired sound I’ve come to know all too well from them. “I’d Kill For Her” and “Comanche Moon” put the formula to good use, with an inspired mix of Nuggets’y garage-pop song structures and narco-psychedelic noise-mongering. “Grab As Much (as You Can)” is great too, as long as you don’t pay too close attention to the lyrics (never the band’s strength) and are OK with them stealing the guitar riff from Johnny Kidd and The Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”. “Estimate” and “Half Believing” are weaker, with the band attempting a po-faced seriousness they don’t pull off convincingly. “Medicine” sounds a lot like Clinic, another VU-inspired band that spent part of the 2000s stubbornly putting out songs that sounded like minor variations of other songs they’d already released, before shaking things up with Bubblegum in 2010. Were Death Song the first Black Angels album I’d probably be a lot more excited by it, but, to quote a Black Flag song title, “I’ve Heard It Before”.
Five years after its first official release (assuming you consider a run of 500 cassettes an official release) this relic from The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s earliest days is getting another limited release, this time as a 2LP blue vinyl Record Store Day 2017 exclusive. The album is only getting modest exposure because, as Anton Newcombe’s liner notes explain, it was never meant to be heard by a lot of people. These are cassette recordings he made back in 1990-’91 to teach himself how to write and record songs. So, don’t come to it expecting cohesive flow, pristine fidelity, stunning performances or highly developed songs. That said, as a document of a process, it’s pretty good. As far I know, “Evergreen” and “Fingertips” are the only songs to survive this era and find their way onto an official release (on 1995’s Methodrone and a b-side for a 2015 single, respectively) but I’m actually surprised Anton hasn’t revisited a song like “Rotary Eight” or the Bunnymen-esque “Pictures of Us” yet. It’s hard to discern the finer details in the lo-fi murk, but there’s definitely good melodies in there begging for a better recording. “Psychedelic Sunday” is another keeper, and I’ll be damned if its combination of hard-driving beat, noisy guitars and whispery vocals don’t sound like the blueprint for everything A Place To Bury Strangers did over a decade later. While four sides of homemade cassette recordings from over a quarter of a century ago aren’t the building blocks of an album I’m going to frequently reach for when I want to hear The Brian Jonestown Massacre, it’s still a fascinating snapshot of a work in progress that hardcore fans of the band (myself included) will enjoy.
Don’t Get Lost is The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s sixteenth official full-length album, depending on what you do or don’t count as official or full-length. Within that vast discography it falls somewhere alongside Who Killed Sgt. Pepper and Musique de Film Imagine – albums where BJM leader Anton Newcombe and whoever he’s recording with follow their muse down a rabbit hole that puts them a little too far outside their wheelhouse for the good of the listener. They’re artistically interesting records, and exploring the musical areas they cover may be necessary for Anton to keep things interesting after several decades of writing, but they’re also the Jonestown records I reach for the least. On Don’t Get Lost Anton and co. ignore their own advice and do get lost in the groove-heavy experimentation of krautrock and post-punk. Now, you may be thinking the same thing I was when I first read that: “I like The Brian Jonestown Massacre, I like krautrock and I like post-punk. Game on!” Well OK, it makes sense to think that, but Don’t Get Lost is a lengthy mess of aimless experimentation and bad ideas. Or, in krautrock terms, it’s more Popol Huh? than Popul Vuh.
Before I get too deep into my critical drubbing, let me first single out the album’s praise-worthy moments. Don’t Get Lost’s pinnacle is “Resist Much Obey Little”, which, in addition to being a great message for these politically challenging times, is a crisp and concise tune with a strong melody and Joy Division-esque mood. It’s probably not a coincidence that it’s also the song that sounds the most like the Brian Jonestown Massacre of old. “Charmed I’m Sure” is a spooky instrumental with squiggly synth textures that actually sounds like it could have come from an early-’70s krautrock record. Lastly, “Groove Is In The Heart” may not be the Deee-Lite cover I hoped for when I saw the song title – and it’s actually a little too close to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sidewalking” for comfort – but the way Anton and frequent collaborator Tess Parks trade vocal lines works really well with the song’s carefree swagger.
OK, now let’s touch on the basket of deplorable music that makes up the rest of the album. There’s ill-advised excursions into trip-hop like “One Slow Breath”, which sounds like a non-Maxinquaye Tricky demo, and “Melody’s Actual Echo Chamber” where Anton (at least I think it’s him) just lists colors over a bland Massive Attack-lite instrumental. Both are completely useless. “Fact 67” is an attempt to sound like New Order, but the mix of cheap drum machines, dull groove, and vocals by Charlatans front-man (and frequent New Order plagiarist) Tim Burgess is a non-starter, and, like most of the songs on Don’t Get Lost, it’s way longer than it should be, at over six minutes. While neither are terrible, sequencing two unexciting instrumentals back-to-back is never a good idea, yet there before my eyes and ears are “UFO Paycheck” and “Geldenes Herz Menz” clogging up the album’s back-half. Even with so many bad songs, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of “Acid 2 Me Is No Worse Than War” – a lame throwback to the hedonistic sound of early-’90s acid house that nobody wanted. While it might be the worst song in the entire Brian Jonestown Massacre discography, it does allows you to finally understand Anton’s intentions on this album: He wanted to make his version of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, where electronica, dance and dub “come together” in a rock-based context. Unfortunately his ham-fisted attempt at it, comes as close to Screamadelica as Primal Scream’s own ham-fisted attempt at Exile On Main Street-era Stones, Give Out But Don’t Give Up.