Since arriving on the return-to-rock train with its 2000 debut, B.R.M.C., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has been written off as a Jesus and Mary Chain imitator, perfecting its sleepy-voiced, feedback-laden act through such blatant plagiarism that it made the rock critic’s job feel like a cakewalk through a field of obviousness.
As the sob story goes, after two albums of disappointing and quasi-unoriginal material, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had a falling out with Virgin Records only to be swept up by RCA. The band lost and regained drummer Nick Jago and recorded its third album, Howl, on which the guys trade their exhausted distortion pedals for DVD copies of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
But we’ve seen this trick before, right? It’s nearly twenty years old. Back in 1987, this trick was called Darklands, and the magicians were the same group of Scottish lads with whom BRMC supposedly now has nothing in common. Yes, once upon a time the Jesus and Mary Chain lost a drummer (Bob Gillespie, who went on to front Primal Scream) and tore down its wall of feedback and noise to surprise everyone who expected the group to return with another Halloween basket of Psychocandy. Granted, Darklands wasn’t a Reid-brothers foray into the world of black gospel and Delta blues, but the similarities are enough to make BRMC cynics shake their heads in disgust.
Is BRMC trying too hard? Has the band really matured? Are they fucking serious with this whole roots thing? Strangely enough, the answer to all three is an emphatic “yes.” Almost to the point of it feeling unnatural and occasionally uncomfortable, Howl is soaked in soul. Core members Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been (formerly credited as Robert Turner) evoke so much religious spirituality that’s it’s impossible to dismiss these songs as tongue-in-cheek, even when the opening vocal harmony on “Shuffle Your Feet” or the rolling tympani-accented organ on “Howl” project such an awkward turn from what we’ve come too expect from the band.
It isn’t until the truly restrained “Devil’s Waitin’,” with its moody choral accompaniment and lightly picked acoustic guitar, that it becomes clear that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has abandoned its old self. By the time the country twang of “Ain’t No Easy Way” hits with a massive drum-and-harmonica stomp, thoughts of Howl being a “Hey, let’s try this” album vanish, and the music becomes the entrancing jaunt of a band not necessarily finding itself, per se, but at least writing the best songs of its career.
Still, the uncertainty remains as to whether such impressive songs as “Sympathetic Noise” and “Fault Line” are even relevant when coming from a band that has more or less proved itself the opposite thanks to its mediocre past. But superb songwriting transcends all, and Howl reveals the members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club following their hearts and souls as opposed to tagging along with trends.