Graded on a Curve:
Black Cab, Jesus East

I’ll never forget the first time I heard 2004’s Altamont Diary by Melbourne, Australia’s Black Cab. I was stunned, stunned to the point of total stupefaction. At long last, a concept album about one of my all-time favorite fiascos! And it was great, grand, a total triumph! My heart went pitter-patter. My brain throbbed, thrilled. And I developed a rare case of instantaneous tumescence, of the sort best described by the legendarily libidinous Henry Miller as “a piece of lead with wings on it.”

Okay, so I made up the part about the hard-on. But it really was a spectacular case of smitten upon first listen. And I’ve been smitten ever since. The band’s sound is a seemingly impossible fusion of electronica, Far Eastern instrumentation, and Krautrock, but Black Cab possesses the uncanny ability to strike precisely the right balance between those influences, producing electronica-flavored songs that evoke both midnight candles bobbing on little platforms in the river Ganges and the droning propulsion of those prophets of the Autobahn, Neu!

That’s the great news. The not-so-great news is that their latest release, 2014’s The Games of the XXI Olympiad, is largely a venture into pure electronica. Don’t get me wrong. The album is a pleasure to the ears and was good enough to garner them a gig as openers for Tangerine Dream. But I miss, oh how I miss, the Eastern influences and Krautrock trappings that made Altamont Diary so brilliant. Which is why I’m ignoring their latest to review 2006’s Jesus East. It’s Krautrock-heavy and has been shown scientifically to provoke dancing in laboratory mice, who are notoriously picky when it comes to their tastes in music.

Black Cab is principally James Lee on guitars and Andrew Coates on vocals, arrangements, and programming, with additional musicians throwing in on each album. Around since 1999, they’ve produced four LPs and two EPs, and they’re attracted to making concept albums, whether the concept be 1969’s bloody Altamont festival or the XXI Olympiad. The theme of Jesus East is far more nebulous; as Coates explains, “The album’s two musical signposts are the Beatles’ sitar-drenched “Tomorrow Never Knows” and German Krautrock duo Neu!. We kind of had this theme which was George Harrison goes to an ashram in India and comes back to Germany via the autobahn.”

To which I can only say, what the what? That’s not a concept, it’s a recipe for boredom. Having given it some serious thought, I think they should have expanded the concept by having Harrison—one of the dullest figures in rock history—getting kidnapped on the Autobahn by members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and then joining them in their quixotic pursuit of overthrowing the corrupt West German government. But hey, you can’t have everything, and if it’s the Baader-Meinhof Gang that interests you, I recommend to you Luke Haines’ one-off band Baader-Meinhof, whose LP of the same name ranks at Number 3 on my list of all-time favorite concept albums.

Anyway, Jesus East opens with the amazingly melodic krautrocker “Hearts on Fire.” The song is introduced by a bass that ventures into Joy Division territory, but then hits the highway, Coates’ voice carrying a faint echo while Lee plays some fantastic guitar. A dream of a drone that does Neu! proud, “Hearts on Fire” is as catchy a tune as I’ve heard all year, thanks to the rhythm section of Anthony Paine on bass and Richard Andrew on drums. And the song’s climax is a guaranteed Krautrock TKO. “Jesus East” is more beautiful, and reminds me of Jesus and the Mary Chain at their best. Coates’ vocals are again echoing and lovely, while the melody is so sweet it will make you want to kiss a poodle right on the mouth. The song builds and then segues into an instrumental passage, before returning to its roots as Lee creates dream visions on his axe.

“Another Sun” opens with the tablas of Hermant Kumar, which are followed by some stellar sitar by the great Radhey Gupta. The resulting drone is enthralling, but stops as the song takes a new direction and slowly builds, Lee singing about waiting to see another sun, after which Coates’ guitar takes over, playing a swell riff over Andrew’s drums. Then the song slows and the sitar returns and goes Beatles on your ass, at which point the song segues into “Underground Star,” another pure foray into Neu!-flavored Krautrock. This one sounds like a BMW doing 160, the way my old BMW could before I turned the keys over to a homeless mechanic (named Danny the Homeless Mechanic) who promptly drove it to Florida and abandoned it in a hurricane, all the windows and sunroof open. But I digress.

“13 Days” also opens with tablas and sitar, and sounds very meditative in a floating yogi sort of way as Coates’ guitar joins in with a nice Western melody. Then the song stops, you hear some distorted background noise, and the tablas come back in, making you want to immerse yourself in the Ganges and get some horrible disease to add to the dysentery you already got by eating that suspicious smelling Mattar Paneer, spiritual sucker, I mean seeker. And then the tablas are joined by some heavy drum crash, the dreamlike and wordless vocals of Japanese singer Sayaki Yabuki, and some pretty wind chimes of the sort that once drove a Vietnam vet and ex-neighbor of mine to threaten to kill me if I didn’t take them down, they were causing him such terrible flashbacks.

“Surrender” is another LP highlight, lighter on the Krautrock but still propulsive with a stunning bass line and Coates singing and Lee playing a very cool solo on guitar. Can’t say enough about the bass on this one; or the melody for that matter, which is both catchy and fast-paced. “Randy Sez” opens with some real atmospherics, including sitar and whooshing space sounds and the echoes of lost beings. But it’s over before you know it and you’re faced with the big guitar washes of “Simple Plan,” in which Coates sings about how he’s not someone he understands to a punchy melody that builds into a maelstrom of sound, only to quiet again as Coates sings about how imagination is his only friend. At which juncture Lee produces some big guitar noise that dead ends against the wall that is the song’s end.

“Valiant” is a strange bird, featuring the spoken vocals of Sam Cutler—former manager of the Grateful Dead—over some very laid-back background music. Cutler—who was at Altamont, forming a connection between Altamont Diary and Jesus East—bewails in a spiritual way the current lack of fellowship that he once felt with the Dead, and in general finds today’s music fans to be disconnected from one another, and from a coherent counterculture as a whole. Agree or disagree, his accent alone makes the song worth listening to, as does the lovely backdrop. I love the way he says, “If I was going to be buried and I had a tombstone, I’d have on my tombstone, ‘I rode with the Grateful Dead.’” Cutler comes across as I guy I would really love to know as he encourages the listener “to be valiant,” and “make a master of your own heart.” Toward the end Lee’s guitar takes over, playing a killer solo that actually makes me feel valiant, and it’s lovely.

As for closing tune “The Path,” it opens with sitar and tablas, and some soaring keyboards that launch you into inner space, and if I were ever to drop acid again (fat chance) this would be the song I would want to set the proper spiritual mood. About halfway through Cutler reappears, as Black Cab replays his refrain, “Open your eyes, most things don’t match” over and over again, and if that is the message of the Path, I will admit to being befuddled. Still, it’s a lovely closer to a wonderful LP, and one that you owe it to yourself to listen to, just as you owe it to yourself to listen to Altamont Diary.

It’s possible that the pure electronica of Games of the XXI Olympiad marks a permanent move away from the band’s other influences. But I hope not. As great as some of its songs are (check out “My War,” “Sexy Polizei,” and “State Plan 14.25,”), Games will never win my love, as songs like “Hearts on Fire” and “Jesus East” do. If nothing else, I miss Lee’s guitar and Coates’ vocals, and I miss the tablas and sitar too. Suppose the Baader-Meinhof Gang really had snagged George Harrison on the Autobahn, and that he’d made an album with some simpatico outlaw Krautrock band. That’s the album I want to hear—are you listening, Black Cab?—and I just know they have it within them to make it a reality.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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