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This is the twenty-fifth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
In the vast pantheon of Rock and Roll genres, for the uninitiated, some are far more intimidating than others. If someone suggests you a band and they say: "Yeah "band X" is totally a blend of hardcore, death metal and avant garde noise, but you'll like them... I swear!"... and your music collection consists primarily of mainstream power pop, you're probably not going to check out this "band X". Those genres are outside of your comfort zone, so you shy away and stay towards genres you're more familiar with... bands that are a little safer maybe.
That's fine and makes logical sense. Why would you want to just dive into a genre that is so unlike what you're currently listening to? Why take risk time and often money on something that you might very well end up hating?
Of course, you also might end up really liking "band X", and subsequently would have found that there is some "hardcore, death metal, avant garde noise" out there that you really like and in turn you would further explore those genres... who know. Most likely though, you probably wouldn't have taken that plunge though. Maybe you would have had you first been exposed to a band that sort of bridges the gap between those genres and the ones you're already familiar with... maybe.
I won't go into it for hardcore or death metal right now, but as a big fan of noise rock and it's subsequent offshoots (like shoegaze), I find it to be a very intimidating genre for "outsiders". I think it's the name... "noise rock"... it implies something very atonal and lacking in musicality: noise. Even mention a genre with the word noise in it and people suddenly back away like you're suggesting they spend an hour listening to primal screams or fingernails on a chalk board... I mean, who really wants to listen to noise? Come on... Still, if more people would take the plunge into this genre, I think they would find that a lot of the bands that experiment with noise are some of the most exciting, powerful and compelling bands around.
Just like with band X though, probably not too many people are going to take that plunge on their own because, like I said, noise is intimidating. So this month I'm going to introduce a few of you all to noise rock in a very gentle way... a bridge band of sorts... through the Jesus and Mary Chain and one of their best albums: Honey's Dead.
If you're already familiar with this band, and with noise rock as a genre/style, you might think I could have picked a better band for an "introduction to noise rock". Why not start towards the beginning with the Velvet Underground? Or the Stooges? Or why not start with a more immediately identifiable band like Sonic Youth? Or why not just jump in with both feet with a truly avant garde atonal noise explosion and let the chips fall where they may?
Well I could have started at any of those other points, but in terms of a gentle ease into the genre, I like the Jesus and Mary Chain because they straddle many stylistic lines. Imagine a cross roads with a droning psychedelia on the north side, straight forward indie garage rock on the south side, fuzzy, feedback laced, shimmering shoegaze/noise rock to the east and the rebellious counterculture spirit of true alternative to the west. You could easily place the Jesus and Mary Chain at the center of that crossroads. Not only do they have catchy, artistic songs with plenty of attitude, but they're a good introduction to the fuzz, feedback and noisy sounds of bands like Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground, or the more shimmering fuzz of shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine, Lush and Ride.
Honey's Dead is a great indication of the genre bridging qualities of this band as it has a range of very accessible songs, all cloaked in a noisy, fuzzy exterior. As far as gentle introductions to noise rock go... this album is a good one, even though it came towards latter half of the band's career... plus it's just a great listen.
The album kicks off with "Reverie", and the opening lyrical line "I wanna die just like Jesus Christ..." sets the tone for all to follow. With droning waves of shimmering guitar fuzz riffs that seem to come from all sides, it's obvious that this is no normal rock track, but the hypnotic drum machine/drum beats and driving base keep things tight, and engrossing. "Teenage Lust" is more restrained tempo wise, but the grinding riffs, and bluesy swagger are pure attitude, maintaining the hypnotic, primal psychedelic quality of the opener, just in a new form. These two songs back to back are one heck of a one two punch, that really draw you into this album and set the mood.
They change it up a little bit though, with more of a straight forward garage rock number on "Far Gone and Out". Significantly lighter in mood, with a great central riff, it has an almost sing-along esque quality, especially in the "Ah hey hey HEY!" of the outro, but is still underpinned by plenty of rhythm from the drums/drum machine and bass. "Almost Gold" could be called the true ballad of the album, but it's a ballad as done by the Jesus and Mary Chain, meaning that although it is a sweet song for a great floating melody, it's still cloaked in a shimmering noisy hazy texture throughout... a great change of pace that might not speak to you on first listen, but is sure to grow on you.
"Sugar Ray" brings back the dark, hypnotic groove with almost industrial precision, but the chorus has a lighter vibe. This song is very catchy indeed, both in it's noise mechanical beats, and upbeat chorus. Although I can't recall seeing it, apparently this track was even used in a beer commercial at one point... interesting because as as whole th Jesus and Mary Chain never really had a whole lot of commercial success so being asked to be in a commercial seems at the very least unlikely. I also especially like the guitar leads on this track which are massively thick and fuzzy sometimes, more restrained and straightforward at others and sprinkled with shards of feedback at still others. This is one of my favorites from this album.
The band changes it up again with an almost power pop number in "Tumbledown". Don't take that the wrong way, it's still got plenty of attitude and gritty garage rock guitars, but the song itself is catchy, bright, upbeat and driving. In the middle section though, they break back down into industrial groove and guitar noise, just briefly, before kicking back into the lighter feel again. "Catchfire" is another personal favorite of mine from this album. It's just so dark and seductive from start to finish with swirling fuzz guitar and hushed, smoky vocals. As I said earlier, this entire album has a fuzzy haze throughout, but on each song that haze takes on a distinctly different color. On this track the haze is almost certainly a smoky, very dark red... a primal, one might say, blood-like color... if that description makes any sense at all. It's a great track for sure.
"Good for my Soul" follows and changes things up once again. Another ballad-esque song, this has tinges of gospel to my ear though, in a clouds parting, light streaming down kinda way... but again, it's still filtered through the band, adding noise, fuzz and groove. Then with "Rollercoaster" we're firmly back in garage rock again. There's also something very British about this track to my ear (they're a Scottish band so that isn't surprising really) just a little something that recalls '60s British invasion, but nothing that's probably immediately identifiable. It's another catchy one though, and you gotta love that thick fuzz guitar sound upping the intensity.
"I Can't Get Enough" is rather lighthearted and bouncy... probably the most directly pop-esque track. That's not like "top 40s pop" though, as there's still sharp, fuzzy, noisy guitar leads to remind you who you're listening to. "Sundown" is also pretty restrained, but still underpinned by plenty of fuzz. It's aptly titled as this song very much does sound like the sun setting at the end of the fuzzy, noisy, rockin' day that is this album... receding into night as they build layers of fuzz and feedback to serve as the ending climax.
That isn't the end though... no... they come back with "Frequency" to close things off. It's a one minute twisted echo of "Reverie" with the same lyrics and a slowed beat to drive along the grinding guitar riffs. Oh, and of course there's a killer fuzzy guitar lead and plenty of noise to close the album out. Together these two are bookends to the album, "Reverie" to open things up and "Frequency" to close things out, the same, but different... an effect that this band would employ on other albums as well... creating one complete work contained within.
And that's really how it sounds: like one complete work. Not necessarily an overt concept album (although you could probably read it that way if you wanted to), but one where all the songs are tied together by the same tonal colors, attitudes and motifs. One of those motifs, is the white noise, fuzz, feedback fun of noise rock, and what ties them directly to bands like the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, while never sounding as abrasive on first listen, challenging or as overtly avant garde as some of those bands and others that embrace noise even more. Instead they capture those textures but their catchy hooks and groove keep these songs accessible, immediately engaging and compelling for even more casual listeners.
I'd have no problem recommending Honey's Dead by the Jesus and Mary Chain to anyone who's into indie rock, alternative or psychedelic rock... even people who've never listened to anything even remotely resembling noise rock. As I said, I think this album is a good introduction to that genre and feel that a few people might hear this album and others by this band and feel inspired to check out some of the more "advanced" noise rock bands around.
Don't think for a second though that just because I consider this album to be a something of a "genre bridge" that I don't think it's just as rewarding to listen to for those out there who are already firmly ensconced with noise rock. This is a complex album that will reward the hardcore "shoegazers" and those with far less progressive musical tastes alike.
I'm also pretty fond of a few other the Jesus and Mary Chain albums, besides Honey's Dead, like their debut Psychocandy, but you can find great music throughout their catalog, so go on now...check it out.
You can check out this album directly from Amazon here: Honey's Dead