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Maximum Cool

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Take Them On, On Your Own (Virgin)

The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are smart, sexy, snotty and raw. Their new album, Take Them On, On Your Own, will be the best thing that gets played on commercial rock radio all year. They’re all revved up and ready to go. Hell, they’re gone—and it’s time for you to catch up.

On their 2001 self-titled debut, San Francisco trio BRMC introduced their preferred brand of rock & roll: dark, British, angsty and raw. While subject to near-universal critical praise, B.R.M.C. fell short only in its stubborn desire to psychically transfix rather than rock, preferring the slow, undulating guitar swirls and feedback buildup that hit hard, but only at gradual effect.

With their follow up (self-produced, like their first), BRMC replace their sometimes-lifeless chug with in-your-face, crunchy rock. Their love for British rock again prevails (it was incidentally recorded in London because of Anglo guitarist Peter Hayes’ visa issues), motivating them to progress the sounds of their forebears rather than duplicate them. What results is what Oasis’ third album should have been, had they done without the cocaine or the ego: fast, edgy rock & roll, the kind of music that can make you feel thoroughly cool by just listening to it (like Achtung Baby used to). Singer-bassist Robert Turner sneers like a midrange Liam Gallagher approximating a more articulate Iggy Pop, minus the arrogance both singers embody. Peter Hayes constructs multilayered, fluid riffs, one on top of another, with carefully selected distortions slick enough for WEQX but still capable of boilin’ yer blood.

BRMC unabashedly embrace rock & roll cool in song and style, but with an astounding confidence that’s neither contrived nor cheeky—a rarity in today’s GQ-ready rock world. If big-sound kickass rock & roll is your game but you can do without the ego, let the new Strokes record alone and go get your engine jumped by Take Them On.

—John Suvannavejh

Various artists
For Anyone That’s Listening: A Tribute to Uncle Tupelo (Flat Earth)

For Anyone That’s Listening puts a nice coda on a year that has seen an Uncle Tupelo renaissance of sorts, what with the reissue of all four of the group’s albums last spring. Hopefully, the flurry has resulted in a renewed understanding of the band as fierce iconoclasts swimming against the tides, rather than simply totemic godfathers of the ’90s alt-country explosion. This tribute, released on Indianapolis indie-label Flat Earth (and mastered by Scott Hull, who turned the knobs on the group’s final album, Anodyne), does much to serve the Uncle Tupelo story—not through mythology but by highlighting just how good the tunes were. The group’s greatness wasn’t chiefly in their distinct delivery (i.e., Jay Farrar’s shockingly archaic tones, Jeff Tweedy’s spirited glass-blown rasp, and an assault that ranged from burnished acoustic to hardcore pummel), but a pitch-perfect balance between execution and amazing songwriting.

Most of the artists on For Anyone That’s Listening dwell in that day-job-having, critically acclaimed Americana twilight, and the best renderings here emerge from both of the tried tribute-album approaches: striking revisionism and trueness to the original. Duane Jarvis and Dave Coleman acoustically plunk out a great “New Madrid” that boasts the hearty spirit of Uncle Tupelo. Peter Holsapple (former dBs, R.E.M. sideman) is similarly faithful, and successful, with his meditative “Still Be Around.” By contrast, the wonderful Chicago group Dolly Varden find the gospel-soul number lodged in the heart of the fierce blue-collar spirituality of “Steal the Crumbs” (imagine Al Green taking on Uncle Tupelo). And that speaks to the point: Despite Tupelo’s hallmark unmistakable delivery, the songs themselves remain flexible and ageless. In the right hands.

—Erik Hage

Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
Streetcore (Hellcat/Epitaph)

The late ’90s found Joe Strummer with a new band in tow, the Mescaleros. As one of the most committed and impassioned figures to emerge in the rock era, this marked a new peak. With Global a Go-Go, Strummer and his cohorts effectively integrated every strain of music that excited them, from flat-out rockers to dub and reggae. Strummer’s sudden death at the end of 2002 occurred as a new album was nearing completion.

Streetcore is the perfect embodiment of everything Joe Strummer stood for and loved. Sadly, this last album is the band’s best. The set is brimming with life, and underscores the man’s artistry. Here he was, at 50 years old, creating with a vitality and urgency that is the earmark of a true artist. This set surpasses its predecessor, with folkish pleas for hope (calling “Redemption Songs” a protest song doesn’t do it justice) and deliciously hook-filled anthemic rockers (“Arms Aloft,” “All in a Day”) finding their rightful place amid the perfectly unified variety. And while two of his bandmates completed this album in his memory, Strummer himself labeled the set “for Captain Beefheart.”

—David Greenberger

Songs We Should Have Written (Jetset)

Ex-Cop Shoot Cop frontman Tod Ashley and his current outfit, Firewater, have been making dark, unsettling albums for the better part of a decade now. Dabbling in Eastern European, lounge, punk, and calliope (on this year’s The Man on the Burning Tightrope), Firewater excel at making the listener feel uncomfortable, even chemically unbalanced. The artistic freedom allowed by their label, Jetset (for which Ashley works as a graphic designer), and what must have been a surplus of free time, led the band to record this collection of cover songs, Songs We Should Have Written. Typically, this type of album falls into one of two categories: contractual obligation and/or stopgap between releases, or an earnest attempt to revisit the artist’s favorite songs and make them their own. While this album clearly falls into the latter category, the results are mixed. Compiling a compelling full-length record of covers takes an expert interpreter, and it seems Firewater haven’t quite got the elasticity to pull it off.

There are bright spots. A pair of duets with Luna’s Britta Phillips (Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning”) momentarily take the pressure off of Ashley’s rough-edged growl, and Hazlewood’s menacing “This Town” (popularized by Frank Sinatra) drunkenly swings and sways, with shards of reverb guitar twang keeping it from falling down. Unfortunately, the rest of the record is not so well-executed. The Peggy Lee hit “Is That All There Is?” (penned by Leiber and Stoller) was given a much better update a few years back by John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey, and Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains,” while reverent to its source, falls flat under the weight of Ashley’s gruff, unsteady voice. A heavy-handed take on the Fab Four’s Yellow Submarine nugget “Hey Bulldog” suffers once the melody makes its entrance, though its meaty guitar riff is well-suited to the band’s edgy style. Oh yeah, did I mention that Firewater also have the honor of being the gazillionth band to cover “Paint It Black”? That one hasn’t been improved on in 35 years. Thanks, but no thanks.

—John Brodeur

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