From Joy Division to the Sex Pistols, Galaxie 500 and Nirvana, a lot of great bands made a name for themselves with an extremely short amount of time together. However, Black Tambourine trumps most by having only existed for two short years. The Silver Spring, Md., outfit formed in 1989 by members of Whorl and Velocity Girl, creating a sound that was part shoegazer, part psych-rock and part C-86. The name may not sound all that familiar, and considering their career existed of not much more than a handful of 7-inches, but judging by the recent influx of bands like Vivian Girls and The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, those who did hear their catchy, hazy tunes were inspired to make fuzzy lo-fi rock anthems of their own.
Some 20 years later, Slumberland Records, which originally released two of the band’s singles, as well a compilation of tunes in 1999, has compiled the band’s entire output, including six previously unreleased tracks, onto one disc. Spanning only 45 minutes, it gives a pretty good indication of how quickly the band came and went. But in spite of burning brightly and fizzling so quickly, Black Tambourine made some pretty outstanding pop music during those two years.
The 16 songs on Black Tambourine are marked by their pervasive wall of distortion, incredibly catchy melodies and Pam Berry’s sweetly ethereal vocals. It’s likely to sound familiar to anyone who has been following indie rock trends of late, but Black Tambourine was doing it 20 years ago and kicked a lot more ass doing it. Take the snarkily vicious “Throw Aggi Off the Bridge,” which finds Berry advocating, uh, throwing someone off a bridge, but she delivers it with such sweetness you can’t help but sympathize. Even better is the spunky, extremely noisy melody the band hammers out, which makes a fine backdrop for tossing someone off a bridge.
“Drown” is a bit more elegant, a baroque waltz of sorts, backed by a fierce wave of feedback that cuts through the delicate riffs with blunt brutality. The guitars in “For Ex-Lovers Only” sound a bit out of tune, but the discordant wash of chords is instantly stabilized with a solid bassline and Berry’s airy vocals. “Black Car” is dreamy and gorgeous, a track that stands up to the best shoegazer offerings of the era, while “I Was Wrong” is a hyperactive twee-punk stomper, as little sense as that description might make. The bonus tracks, however, are just as incredible, in particular the muscular “Lazy Heart,” and the bass heavy, glockenspiel plunking cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”
Now seems a particularly apt time for Slumberland to drop this reissue compilation, as it’s become increasingly clear that the sound Black Tambourine crafted in their brief tenure has trickled down to many of today’s noise pop proprietors. Black Tambourine didn’t stick around long, and these 16 songs may be the extent of their output, but they made every note count.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.