The throttling roar of a Harley is enough to wake anyone from the most drug-addled stupor. With the imagery to match—black hair, black sunglasses, black clothes, hell, black everything—Black Rebel Motorcycle Club initially fit their shiny, shiny boots of leather. Nixing the hazy Velvet Underground influence of their first two albums, the band experimented with rootsy Americana on Howl, proving that if they hadn’t found their own sound, then at least they were doing something interesting with an already established genre. Baby 81 is an unfortunate return to the loud (and now boisterous) sound of previous releases. BRMC are hell-bent on retreading the crooked asphalt back roads of tired rock n’ roll cliché. But in spite of it all, a few jewels can be found scattered across the dark interstate.
Howl crackled with ambition; it was a hand-clapping, foot stomping good time miles from the influences that marked the band’s first two efforts, the self-titled debut and follow-up Take Them On, On Your Own. All that ambition has fizzled out in favor of a mash-up of previous recordings that somehow lack the same nostalgic allure. For quick reference, what you won’t hear on Baby 81: harmonica and hand claps. What you will hear: A whole lot of reverb and believe it or not, a driving piano-jam (“Window”). There’s the overly sentimental balladry of “All You Do Is Talk,” and the desperate posturing of shredding ” Berlin.” Posturing is key on Baby 81, in fact, it’s all the boys seem concerned with. Their bad-assedness shows, and don’t they know it. If only it were a selling feature this time around.
As for those redeeming gems: “Weapon of Choice” is like going on a blind date with a Hell’s Angel. An acoustic riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on Howl is soon engulfed by electric crunch and a particularly energetic tambourine as lead singer and guitarist Peter Hayes croons: “I won’t waste my love on a nation.” It’s a rare moment on the album where a penchant for showmanship actually comes in handy without sounding overdone. “American X” relies heavily on its length, a satisfying nine minutes, to ramble out a new-wave jam-session over a menacing message of disenfranchisement in the great U.S. of A.
Expectations have a tendency to make or break an album. Baby 81 suffers from the unfortunate luck of arriving on the coattails of BRMC’s most challenging and successful work, Howl. There is a certain fallacy in judging an album based on its predecessor, but how a band has matured (or hasn’t) usually comes through in the sound. In other words, if you’re coming into Baby 81 like a newborn, free from the minutiae of their first three records, maybe you’ll love the hell out of it. Just don’t be disappointed if you find yourself stranded on that dusty freeway as the distant motorcycles fade into the sunset.
The Secret Machines – Now Here is Nowhere
Oasis – Definitely Maybe
Candlebox – Candlebox