BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE “WHO KILLED SGT. PEPPER” 2LP
Throughout the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s various travels in Spacemen 3 fuzz-rock, Byrdsian jangle-pop, and Dylanesque country-blues, the one constant has been Newcombe’s alternately venomous/vulnerable voice. But ever since Ondi Timoner’s notorious 2004 documentary Dig! cast his erratic, sometimes violent personality in a most unflattering lens, he’s seemed less willing to put himself front and center in his own music. He deferred most of the vocal duties on 2005′s We Are the Radio to guest singer Sarabeth Tucek and spent the duration of 2008′s nigh impenetrable My Bloody Underground submerged in a lo-fi murk. On first approach, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? continues the subterfuge– like its predecessor, the new album boasts cassette-quality fidelity, features revolving-door collaborations with various European comrades, and carves another couple pounds of brisket off the sacred cow that is the Beatles. But in sharp contrast to My Bloody Underground‘s stoned lethargy, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? represents a genuine attempt on Newcombe’s part to revitalize his band’s sound. It’s the Brian Jonestown Massacre album that’s the least informed by the usual parade of 1960s mod/psych influences, opting instead for flirtations with disco rhythms, drum loops, boom-box beats and house-diva wails.
In a sense, Newcombe has simply replaced one form of repetition (droning/jangly guitar jams) for another (dance workouts). Once locked into a groove, he’s not always sure what to do with it, letting Hacienda flashbacks like “This Is the First of Your Last Warning (Icelandic)” and “Feel It” chug along unnecessarily past the six-minute mark without introducing much variation on their pre-established themes. And in “Let’s Go Fucking Mental”, we find two brutish British traditions– soccer chants and late-90s Big-Beat electronica– combined into a laborious, lunk-head stomp that pummels enough brain cells to fulfill its own prophecy.
Newcombe’s beat experiments produce greater results when he uses them to draw out his songs’ underlying menace. Compared to the steady 4/4 pulse of the aforementioned tracks, “This Is the One Thing We Did Not Want to Have Happen” provides a welcome mid-album jolt, with Newcombe’s threatening vocal spurred on by a torrent of squalling guitars and a corrosive “She’s Lost Control” rhythm loop (presumably a cheeky response to Bernard Sumner’s band Bad Lieutenant nicking the riff to the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “When Jokers Attack” on their 2009 single “Sink or Swim”). “Someplace Else Unknown” gets even more unhinged, with a ticking-time-bomb beat and queasy background textures that coax a strung-out Newcombe to maniacally scream, “Look motherfucker, now I’m looking for drugs!” Newcombe may be sober these days, but this track provides the most convincing recorded evidence in the entire BJM catalogue of the volatile character we see in Dig!.
As if to underscore his distance from the smack-habit days that “Someplace Else Unknown” revisits, Newcombe’s mood brightens considerably in the home stretch, offering up a pair of peace-offering pop songs that hearken back to the band’s shoegazered 1995 debut Methodrone, and the delightfully WTF curio that is “Dekta! Dekta! Dekta!”, a jaunty new-wave jig that’s of a piece with early-80s Euro-pop novelties like Trio’s “Da Da Da” and Falco’s “Der Kommissar”. But, of course, Newcombe can’t let things lie without one last gratuitous exercise in kill-your-idols provocation, in this case the 10-minute sound-collage closer “Felt Tipped Pictures of UFOs”. Juxtaposing John Lennon’s infamous “bigger than Jesus” apology speech with the rantings of a young, impoverished Scottish woman calling bullshit on his “imagine no possessions” rhetoric, the track initially serves to encapsulate the philosophical disconnect between rich pop stars and the common fan. But as Newcombe lets the woman spout off on the details of a John Lennon-séance reality-TV special for the last five minutes, you start to wonder which musician’s self-indulgence is really the issue here.