Have you ever lived that cliche where you’re in a record shop and the music on the player stops you in your tracks and you have to ask sheepishly what it is because it’s so amazing and you have to have it? That happened to me the first time I heard Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s self-titled debut (2000). For some research I was doing, I was interviewing the owner of this little indie record shop in this little town of St. Helens, England, and I had to interrupt him when the album came on. And, yes, I left the shop with a copy of it for my own collection.
Baby 81 kicked me in the stomach just as hard. After the rock ‘n’ roll political wash of Take Them On, On Your Own (2003) and the splintered Americana of Howl (2005), Baby 81 is a wicked crystallization of all the sounds on the first album, tightened up and brightened up and even louder and more textured. There’s even a song in a major key (“It’s Not What you Wanted”). This is at once a headphones record and a turn-it-up-to-eleven-in-your-car opus. Play opener “Took Out a Loan” loud and you get walloped with guitars; play it through headphones and you can get tangled up in the acoustic guitars that underpin the track. This is a B.R.M.C. signature sound in the making.
“Weapon of Choice,” the first single, has a chorus that nearly dictates fist pumping and shouting along: “I won’t waste it, I won’t waste it, I won’t waste my love on a nation.” Yes, the band is still on its political mission, and yes, the revolution still starts within you. “666 Conducer” is all Led Zeppelin sex and bravado swagger, and “Need Some Air” is this record’s “Whatever Happened to my Rock ‘n’ Roll (Punk Song).” “Cold Wind” is a perfect amalgamation of all three previous records: heavy guitars, sludgy, pumping bass — a total rocker with a blues inflection.
I’ve had “Am I Only” on repeat for days now. Why Peter Hayes has been sitting on a track as affecting and gut-achingly gorgeous as this since his teens is beyond me. Acoustic guitars give way to a big wash of distortion and texture. It’s B.R.M.C.’s “Almost Gold” or “Sundown,” if we want to continue the Jesus and Mary Chain comparisons spawned by the band’s noise-distortion bubblegum. If we wanted to extend those comparisons, we could say that Baby 81 is B.R.M.C.’s Honey’s Dead. That’s a lofty claim — and we’ll have to see if B.R.M.C. endures and becomes classic and canonized like the Mary Chain — but both albums are distillations of the previous records yet reinventions at the same time. And that’s the point.