Black Tambourine – OneTwoThreeFour (Slumberland Records)


(This review originally appeared on www.spectrumculture.com)

The time couldn’t be more right for Black Tambourine to resume activity. There are several young bands at the top of the indie-rock vanguard who bear their influence (The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Dum Dum Girls are the most obvious, although there are others), and the label they helped to launch and aesthetically define, Slumberland Records, is more popular today than at any other time in its 20+ year history. These peak conditions don’t come about often, so it’s kind of surprising that the reunited band’s first release of all new material in almost two decades (barring the four new songs included as bonus tracks on their 2010 self-titled compilation) is a four-song EP of Ramones covers that clocks in at just under 11 minutes and is only available as either a download or double 7″. It’s a curious move, and one that doesn’t exactly scream, “We’re back as a fully functioning band, and ready to take on the world!” However, given the logistical difficulties of having band members living on two different continents, this may be the most effort they can put forth right now.

On the surface, the Ramones’ music wouldn’t seem to have very much in common with Black Tambourine’s but there are some similarities between the two. Both have distinct aspects that could potentially be off-putting to listeners (for the Ramones it’s their testosterone-heavy punk rock aggro, and for Black Tambourine it’s their almost Psychocandy-esque devotion to feedback), but they were both smart enough to camouflage those dangerous weapons in ridiculously tuneful melodies that draw upon sugary source material from the worlds of bubblegum pop and Phil Spector’s girl-group productions. It’s the girl-group connection that’s most evident here, as the four songs from the Ramones songbook chosen for OneTwoThreeFour are all classic tales of young romance that could have just as easily been performed by someone like the Ronettes as either of these two bands. So, if you were hoping to hear Pam Berry singing Ramones lyrics about kosher salamis, Nazis, shock treatment or sniffing glue, you’re just going to have to keep waiting.

Structurally, Black Tambourine sticks closely to the template of the original. They’re not here to reconstruct the songs into something new; they just present it with their own set of sonic colorings. Opening track “I Want You Around” takes all of five seconds to prove that the band has aged well over the past two decades. The rhythm section is still basic but sturdy, Mike Schulman can still conjure up unholy sheets of tuneful noise with his guitar, and Pam Berry’s vocals are the perfectly sweet icing on the cake. On a very Spector-ized cover of “What’s Your Game,” Berry gets vocal backing from the ‘Rinettes, a one-off chorus of Linda Smith, Rose Melberg, Jenny Robbins (Honeymoon Diary) and Dee Dee (Dum Dum Girls). “I Remember You” is given a good thrashing, with a galloping drumbeat and shoegaze guitar dive-bombs that would likely get a nod of approval from Kevin Shields. It ends all too quickly with a surprisingly tender reading of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” which maintains the gender of the original lyrics, but includes a lighter, more ethereal touch highlighted by some haunting guitar tremolo.

OneTwoThreeFour may not be a particularly important release from an artistic or cultural standpoint; however, if you take it at face value for what it is – one great band playing the songs of another great band – it makes for a sublimely pleasurable listen and inspires hope that perhaps we’ll be hearing more from Black Tambourine in the near future.

 

Tracklisting:

1. I Want You Around

2. What’s Your Game

3. I Remember You

4. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend

Black Tambourine – Complete Recordings (Slumberland Records)


With The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Cystal Stilts launching Slumberland Records back into the indie-rock spotlight, the time seems right for this re-release. After all, Black Tambourine were perhaps “the” band who defined the musical aesthetic of the label’s early days – a mix of twee-pop, C-86, girl-groups and shoegaze. The Silver Spring, MD outfit didn’t record much in their original 1989-1991 incarnation, with just twelve songs from a handful of singles and compilation appearances to their name. However, they’re still fondly remembered two decades on, which is a testament to just how strong those few songs were. The opener “For Ex-Lovers Only” is perfectly indicative of Black Tambourine’s sound – sheets of Psychocandy-esque guitar feedback, coupled with vocal sweetness from singer Pam Berry  and a punky amatuerism taken from The Pastels, Vaselines and countless other C86-ers. Elsewhere, “Black Car” is a shoegaze ballad par excellence like Ride’s “Vapor Trail”, or even early Slowdive, a cover of Love’s “Can’t Explain” is charmingly ramshackle and “Throw Aggi Off The Bridge” is the band’s “great indie single that never was”. Perhaps the best thing about this retrospective is that it inspired the long-dormant group to reconvene and record four new songs, which are included here. The two covers (Buddly Holly’s “Heartbeat” and Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”) and two originals show they can still make beautiful noise twenty years later.