Man in Black Imitation Club 

BRMC's down-home American conversion goes down in flames.

Forget Deliverance, Reservoir Dogs, or The Man -- the single most excruciating scene in American cinematic history appears in Ghost World, the 2001 indie flick about elitist hipster post-high-school chicks grappling with the inevitable chumpness of the world around them and (occasionally) banging Steve Buscemi. For those who've seen it, the excruciating part can be summed up in one word: Blueshammer.

At one point Buscemi takes sorta-paramour Thora Birch (!) to see an obscure, deified capital-B Blues singer, but it turns out he's the thankless opening act, stuck playing in a garish sports bar full of disinterested doofuses impatiently awaiting the headliner. That'd be Blueshammer, the most hilariously horrifying entity in the Hollywood canon, a bunch of lily-white frat dorks who leap onstage, holler something about taking it back to the Delta blues, and launch into a tuneless, hideous sub-Stevie Ray Vaughn blues-rock abomination with lyrics about picking cotton.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, beware.

BRMC -- a band with a name this ridiculous needs an acronym, I don't care what Marlon Brando movie it's from -- began in San Francisco, fled soon thereafter to Los Angeles, but truly flourished in England, given that it emulated Brit noise-pop gods like Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain in an effort to project what the English think American rock bands should look and sound like: disaffected leather-clad badasses fond of amp-demolishing sonics and onstage volatility. NME adores these dudes, whereas we Yanks, other than throwing 2001's so-so alt-rock single "Love Burns" a few Live 105 plays, have mostly shrugged.

But with its third and latest record, Howl, the He-Man Women-Haters Club has taken an abrupt turn Southward, embracing what a Blues Brothers character described as both kinds of music: country and Western. Ti-i-i-i-ime won't save my soul, begins opener "Shuffle Your Feet" in gospel a cappella, before settling into a stomp-clap rhythm. Tracks include "Restless Sinner," "Devil's Waitin'," and most explicitly, "Gospel Song." Acoustic guitars dominate; harmonica solos abound. Lyrical motifs: Jesus, sin, prison, dad.

A great deal of this is a terribly awkward cultural masquerade, a problem that is only magnified live -- the band's sold-out hoedown at the Great American Music Hall last Monday almost immediately collapsed. Co-frontman Peter Hayes sauntered out solo with an acoustic and drawled his way through "Devil's Waitin'" (the prison one). "'Love Burns!'" shouted a restless audience member as Pete strapped on the hands-free Bob Dylan harmonica thing -- a priceless visual accessory for the budding folk-rocker -- for the fingerpicked black-coffee ballad "Faultline." The whole band then joined in for a couple ramshackle country-rock tunes, train-wrecking into "Ain't No Easy Way," a slide guitar and harmonica square dance that false-started multiple times due to monitor issues.

The natives, to this point immobile, became restless, particularly an older gentleman in a flannel shirt whose appearance suggested the Mitchell Brothers strip club next door had been replaced by a feed store, and he'd wandered over to investigate the ruckus. He wore a meshback cap, and for once, credibly so. "The fuck's the matter with you?" he yelled into the awkward post-false-start silence. "Come on, boys! Let's go!" he added. "Ya fuckin' pussies!"

The band soldiered on, finally mastering "Ain't No Easy Way" and loping through the piano ballad "Promise," wherein co-frontman Robert Levon Been took over vocals and Peter lay down a mean trombone (!). The crowd was having none of this Howl-floggin', and only happily stirred, nine songs in, when the Pudding of the Month Club cut the Americana crap and launched into "Love Burns." The intensity ramped accordingly, the band morphing back into badass bluster mode -- buoyed by vicious, serpentine basslines, BRMC's one prominent strength -- which turned older tunes like "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll" into the set's first remotely high points. The drummer finally got to do something, and so did the crowd.

Essentially, BRMC was its own lousy opening band, one that'd periodically sneak back onstage for down-home Howl tunes that, even at their best, sounded like those U2 B-sides painfully striving to transform themselves into gospel hymns. The farther the set strayed from churchy, prefab Houses of Cash, the better it got, but inevitably we'd be dragged back to walk with Jesus and what have you. It finally ended with "Open Invitation," a Howl hidden track aiming for the funereal, meditative effect of, oh, your average Wilco ballad.

The Babysitters Club is a bit too adept -- great basslines, alright melodies -- to devolve into that Blueshammer level of fakeness. Take away the unmoved crowds, and Howl has some interesting moments where BRMC's prior menace crosses paths with its wide-eyed, down-home present. But the latter sounds too much like a Halloween costume, rather than a legit, credible new direction. Bands get blasted all the time for sounding too much like themselves, but there's gotta be a middle ground between that and this. Otherwise, look for the Club's new electroclash record in 2008. Working title: Bleat.


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