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Under the Influences

  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Take Them On, On Your Own

 

Virgin, 2003

Rating: 3.5

 

    The Raveonettes: Chain Gang of Love

 

Columbia, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: September 12, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

A good year or so before the Secret Cabal of Mainstream Rock Critics got together and decided to convince us all that the Strokes were the most exciting band since the Sex Pistols, California's Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was creating a buzz the old-fashioned way, via well-received live shows and an arresting, if uneven, debut album (2000's B.R.M.C.). For whatever reason, Rolling Stone, Spin, MTV and their brethren declined to galvanize widespread public support, and the band's ambitious, arty mix of garage-rock grit, shoegazing Manchester psychedelia and mid-'80s college-radio noise-pop simmered on the backburner of pop-cultural consciousness.

The tastemakers are giving BRMC's follow-up, Take Them On, On Your Own, a warmer reception, and the album did sell 20,000 copies in its first week, outpacing first-week sales of the band's debut. Whether media backing will translate into respectable numbers is anyone's guess, but there's no getting around the fact that Take Them On is a study in arrested momentum. The trio builds nicely on its now-familiar template of laconic Love and Rockets drawl, serrated Jesus & Mary Chain distortion and the occasional loop and swirl of vintage Ride or the Stone Roses. But in streamlining the elements of B.R.M.C., it jettisons the wrong half of the equation, eschewing substance for angular, affected form.

Not that Take Them On lacks heft: "Stop" best retains the group's signature combination of sharp edges and distant vocals, while "Shade of Blue" hangs on a hook worthy of the previous album's stately "Awake." "Six Barrel Shotgun" is a fire-and-forget gem of quickie, crunchy gratification. "We're All in Love," meanwhile, ever-so-slightly broadens the group's lyrical palette beyond classic-goth yearning and disaffection. But songs like "Generation" and "U.S. Government" tread all-too-common ground, and their snippets of melodicism are undermined by lazy exercises in retro-chic joyriding. Take Them On leans far too heavily on the accouterments of the band's well-defined style. The monotony of "Ha Ha High Baby" and the gratuitous, overlong buzz that closes album-ender "Heart & Soul" feel forced; easy atmospherics meant to distract from a lack of risk-taking. The album is eventually hobbled by its reassuring drone, no longer as novel as it sounded three years back.

The Raveonettes, on the other hand, stand now where BRMC did not so long ago. Like Take Them On, the Danish export's first full-length, Chain Gang of Love, gets its freshness from a strongly derivative approach. The difference is that the Raveonettes' particular amalgam of echoes hasn't yet had time to calcify in listeners' ears. Unlike BRMC's '80s touchstones, Chain Gang's reference points are grounded in the 1950s and '60s; in pre-Brill Building, "My Boyfriend's Back" harmonies and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound washes, caramelized in the fuzzy guitar squalls and angular feedback of the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. If that combination of influences doesn't sound promising in print, the results are surprisingly engaging, as sweet -- and ultimately as empty -- as a praline. "Remember," "Noisy Summer" and "Let's Rave On" are chord-drenched, pure-pop sugar rushes, with guitarist/songwriter Sune Rose Wagner and bassist Sharin Foo trading off on bright, chiming vocals.

But even at a svelte 33 minutes, Chain Gang wears into a well-defined groove pretty quickly, and its breathy affectations too often congeal into pastiche, note-perfect homages lacking in depth. Wagner goes to the "Leader of the Pack" well too many times: "That Great Love Sound" is a fun ride, but the cloying "The Love Gang" and too-precious "Little Animal" are built on an increasingly obvious and formula, heavy on trite redundancy and belabored lyrical tropes ("I'm on the chain gang/ the chain gang of love"). The album's relatively virginal glow wins the Raveonettes a fair amount of slack for now. But Wagner and Foo would do well to study the White Stripes -- not to mention Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- for a lesson in what happens when you place all your eggs in one (undeniably stylish) retro basket.

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 Ratings Key:
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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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