Album: The Brian Jonestown Massacre, "Aufheben" (A Records)
It's been years since anything approached "normal" for The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a band that has always excelled at taking upside down and making it look rightside up; the opposite is also exactly true.
After 2003's apprehensive feint toward modern sounds (electronica, the theoretical proliferation of glowsticks, dancing on designer chemicals, the whole nine yards) on "...And This Is Our Music," bandleader Anton Newcombe seemed to retreat into a hole filled with disconnected bits and pieces of contemporary pop trivia -- "My Bloody Underground" sounded like it was recorded on the other side of a flimsy motel wall, and the album that followed that two years later, 2010's "Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?", improved on that scenario by sounding like it was recorded on the other side of a battlefield. Inside the weird snowglobe that is the BJM, flecks of recognition appeared and glimmered, briefly, then vanished, subsumed on the whole by a massive wave of counter-feedback and unpleasant electronic skritch from somewhere deep and unwholesome inside Newcombe's soul.
For a band that started out prolifically popping out masterful re-enactments of long-gone musical movements -- "Take It From the Man!" is precisely the 1966 that the Rolling Stones were never able to get back to after Altamont, for one thing, but Newcombe seemed to own a map -- this recent malaise has been rather alarming. Perhaps age and his well-documented battles with drugs and insanity had finally worn him down to a nub. It certainly seemed possible, maybe even likely.
That said, it should come as a mild surprise that the band's latest set, "Aufheben," is compelling and lovely from the outset; Newcombe's recent relocation to Berlin, along with his reunion with former BJM founding member Matt Hollywood, has rekindled his imagination, or at least his groove jones. The set kicks off with five minutes of getting-to-know-you-again wordless (not counting monkey and rooster noises) psychedelia, heavily colored with Middle Eastern swag. While it's a standard issue BJM trope, the Stereolab-like "Viholliseni Maala" (featuring an icy cool lead vocal sung entirely in Finnish by Eliza Karmasalo) opens the door down a new hallway -- if it's not Krautrock, it's acceptably close, and you can hear the ends of wires sizzling and machines sparking and humming under the gorgeous paintbrush textures. Newcombe himself doesn't deign to come in until the album's third cut, the laid back "Gaz Hilarant," which in essence borrows the playbook from the band's archetypical 1995-ish "Anenome" era with a slightly worse for the wear Anton Newcombe moaning and mumbling, clutching a bannister, slipping down the stairs no matter how hard he tries to stand up straight.
"I Want to Hold Your Other Hand" continues the image of a man stumbling and grasping for words -- "i am having a really hard time coming up with lyrics to finish the album and the stress is sort of getting to me" he admitted in YouTube comments to a pre-release 2010 version of the song -- but the music is bracing, firm and honest, as if something primal has finally burnt clean inside of Anton Newcombe. He steps forward more forcefully and articulately on the album's second half, but the set begins to rely perhaps a bit too strongly on repetition and an explicit call to its own past -- "The Clouds Are Lies" could literally have been lifted from 1998's "Strung Out in Heaven." Did anyone check just to make sure? Likewise, "Stairway to the Best Party in the Universe" takes things back to the druggy den of the "Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request." It's still a great party, even though you've been to it before: there are people having a happening in here and you don't know where you left your shoes and you think you just met Jack Nicholson.
One strains to hear Newcombe define even one variety of the "Seven Kinds of Wonderful," but his murky vocals are buried neck-deep in the busy mix. There's a song here itching to get out, but it's not clear which wall it's clawing at. "Walking Up to Hand Grenades" is not entirely sure what it wants to be either, early swagger met at the gates of expectation by hordes of confusion. They shake hands and agree to go their separate ways, and the song continues apace for several uneventful minutes (way, way, way back in the mix, you can just make out Hollywood scratching out his definitive slithery guitar lines, which makes the trip -- barely -- worthwhile.)
Closing with a song that reminds everyone of two albums that not many people wanted to hear might not have been the best strategy, but "Blue Order/New Monday" is it, a tough slog even under optimal conditions, but deflating in this context. It's seven minutes of mid-tempo arm-whirling with swirly synthesizer noises thrown in at no extra charge. And as lifeless as it is, it's not enough to derail the mostly exceptional "Aufheben," an album titled after a German word that can mean both destroy and preserve; it is a pretty fair bet Anton did not pick this title randomly out of a hat.