Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Howl

Rock’s most miserable trio turn down the volume on third outing

In the early 2000’s, BRMC got off to a pretty good start. Their self-titled debut, released in 2001, became one of the hottest records around, and helped fan the flames of the garage rock scene in America (not that garage rock had ever really gone away). By the time of their second album, 2003’s Take Them On, On Your Own, the band was beginning to fracture, with backstage arguments (i.e. punch-ups) becoming ever more frequent, enough to rival even the Brothers Gallagher. Such rising tensions would result in the departure of drummer Nick Jago, only to then be dropped by their record company soon after.

But fortunately the band managed to put aside their dysfunctional differences and regroup, to record a much more laid-back, semi-acoustic album, 2005’s Howl.

That Peter Hayes (vocals, guitar), Robert Levon Been (bass, piano), and Jago would choose to pay homage to Frisco poet Allen Ginsberg (whose poem Howl was published in the ‘50s) isn’t surprising, since each member are San Francisco natives themselves, and where they formed the band and lived until the late ‘90s.

From the ‘60s inspired album cover, to the folk, blues, gospel tunes contained within, BRMC have gone pure retro, possibly in an attempt to reclaim their once-held title of ‘too school for school’ world heavyweights.

Imagine Bob Dylan singing gospel while driving down Highway 61. That’s almost what you get on opener “Shuffle Your Feet,” but the Dylan comparisons don’t stop there. The title song could be anything by a modern day Al Cooper, with its swirling organ and harmonies that gradually rise up into the heavens.

Hayes manages to convincingly reinvent himself as a folk-blues singer on “Devil’s Waitin’” and the Dylan sounding “Complicated Situation.” The bluesy “Ain’t No Easy Way Out” could easily peel the paint off the walls of any southern juke joint, while “Still Suspicion Holds You Tight” resembles what The Beatles might have sounded like if they had ever collaborated with The Byrds.

“Promise” is a gorgeous piano ballad in the vein of Lennon, melancholic yet uplifting all at once, as Hayes and the boys were seeking some sort of redemption for their past misdemeanours. The acoustic blues of “Restless Sinner” is cleverly juxtaposed with “Gospel Song,” where Hayes declares that he will “walk with Jesus.” Hayes self-analyses on “Sympathetic Noose” (replete with sweeping strings), before The Beatles-esque “The Line” draws the album to a close in true understated-epic style (one wonders why nobody bothered to give George Martin a call).

Howl is, overall, an extremely satisfying listen. Yes, their musical influences are obvious (Dylan, Byrds, Beatles etc), but then who in the past forty years hasn’t borrowed from at least one of these artists? Yet they borrow from the past, they have successfully reshaped into an image all their own. And what a despondent image it is too.