Graded on a Curve:
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Aufheben

Led as always by Anton Newcombe, The Brian Jonestown Massacre has returned with its twelfth studio album, Aufheben. While not a complete washout, in the end it does little to displace the notion that the man’s best artistic days are far behind him.

Back in the ‘80s is when I first heard The Chesterfield Kings, a garage band with a definite ‘60s bent. Taking the genre’s limitations in mind, they were rather good. They also had a pronounced love of The Rolling Stones. One interesting thing about the Kings; while they certainly had a strong fan base and were bolder in conception than most other ‘80s garage acts, they were still somewhat hindered by the nagging viewpoint of many who considered their music to be decidedly retrograde.

Spacemen 3 and Flaming Lips were just two examples of late-‘80s bands with a detectable ‘60s focus that managed to dodge the retro tag, with both bands at different stages of their existence considered to be groundbreakers. The Kings on the other hand were dogged with the retro stigma, often by those who liked them even. If they made a very good record, it was ultimately very good from within the confines of a limited context, a bit like setting a home-run mark for a single-A farm club; it’s an admirable achievement, sure, but it still pales next to the more grandly scaled activity of the big boys.

I think of The Chesterfield Kings and The Brian Jonestown Massacre together for a couple of reasons. First is their rather obvious shared love of the Stones. The other concerns the differences in reception these bands received for doing something roughly comparable. Yes, BJM first made their mark with a spin on the sound of shoegaze, but they quickly shifted into the role of a retro-inclined band that wore their Stonesian inspiration proudly and defiantly.

The difference between The Chesterfield Kings and The Brian Jonestown Massacre is generally one of scale magnified by differing musical landscapes. By the second half of the ‘90s many listeners were feeling fatigued by an endless procession of “new,” “next,” and “latest” things, so the time was ripe for a few bands that were far more about attitude and an unconflicted approach to influence holding no pretense to originality.

Now, anybody truly moved to make music so indebted to the image of The Rolling Stones is bound to exhibit a certain swagger in execution, the kind of in your face attitudinal motion that causes lots of listeners to pile on the disdain. This is to say that if many people unabashedly loved BJM, just as many loved to hate them. Keeping in mind that the history of art isn’t to be confused with the history of nice people, I never really had any problem with the band in terms of image (while acknowledging that said image eventually steamrolled into something comparable to a train wreck), but I also can’t deny having a rather shoulder-shrugging reaction to them overall.

My ambivalence was probably due to their status as a band du jour while other far more interesting acts (from the garage sphere in particular) were getting slighted or ignored completely. By contrast, I was very much in The Chesterfield Kings’ camp back in the day simply because they had the cards of esteem so strongly stacked against them; in the end, they were a band I couldn’t help rooting for. To be frank, The Brian Jonestown Massacre needed none of my goodwill.

And again, plenty of folks wore their fandom of BJM as a badge of cool and just as many used their dislike of the band as a way to define what rock music shouldn’t be; there wasn’t much in the way of middle ground. Well, except that the middle ground is pretty much where I put them. It’s now a given that the name Brian Jonestown Massacre is essentially synonymous with founder Anton Newcombe, and it hasn’t been really accurate in quite a long time to call them a band. But in their early incarnation a band is very much what they were, holding a solid lineup and releasing some solid music upon which their reputation is based.

If I’m foreshadowing the direction of this review by saying that I don’t think The Brian Jonestown Massacre ever made a great record, I’ll add that in the ‘90s anyway, they also displayed a fair amount of promise. But as time marched forward and the situation shaped up more and more as a Newcombe-led project with a frequently revolving door, the whole endeavor became a case of highly dysfunctional diminishing returns, and I started paying less attention.

If I haven’t been fond of any of the BJM records to see release in the 21st Century, I’ve come to at least respect Newcombe as a survivor and an artist of deeper dedication than I suspected he had in him. Yes, the heyday of the Massacre is long gone and it’s highly doubtful it’s ever coming back, and yet here Newcome is with another record. If Aufheben does little to change my perception of his recent output, it does feel like the man’s best release in quite some time. With this said, the bad and indifferent moments far outweigh the good, and it’s become even more likely that Newcombe’s most productive days are vanishing in the rearview mirror.

It’s important to not fall into generalizations when describing the problems with any record; I was initially tempted to say that Aufheben is hindered by too many songs in need of inspiration, but that’s not a particularly productive avenue. That the record is lacking in creative spark is perhaps the better way of putting it. After a strong opener (“Panic and Babylon”) and a not bad follow up (“Viholliseni Maalla”), Aufheben begins to bog down with flat tunes (“Gaz Hilarant,” “I Want to Hold Your Other Hand”) and miscalculations (the unfortunate flute on “Illuminomi” and “Face Down on the Moon,” the dance-inclined repetitiveness of closer “Blue Order/New Monday”). “The Clouds Are Lies” and “Stairway to the Best Party” raise the quality back up, but the five and a half minutes of “Seven Kings of Wonderful” goes on for far too long, as does the length of “Waking Up to Hand Grenades.”

If Newcombe had managed to release Aufheben’s four strong songs as an EP, it would’ve caused me to seriously rethink my assessment of his recent output. But these tracks are included on a record that’s sunk by faults seemingly ingrained in its creator’s musical personality. The biggest problem appears to be the sacrifice of dynamics and intensity and a dependence upon repetition that far too frequently results in dead ends.

If The Brian Jonestown Massacre makes an interesting contrast with The Chesterfield Kings, maybe the most revealing comparison, at least in terms of this record, is with Jack White. The White Stripes were a similar sort of band to BJM in how they could divide listeners into pro and anti camps, especially as their popularity grew, in part due to White’s personality but also because their sound was so blatantly in thrall of the music that shaped it.

Listening to White’s Blunderbuss reveals it to also be an LP with quite a few flaws, but it’s still a valuable statement with much to offer creatively. What it’s got is, in a word, verve. It’s important to never count any artist out, and Aufheben holds enough quality to reinforce that maxim. But as Newcombe continually staggers to his feet and gets saved by the bell on record after record, it’s starting to feel like he’s taken a few blows too many.

Graded on a Curve: D+

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