The Discography of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Considered And Ranked: An Exercise In Tax Procrastination
Sometimes, if we are very fortunate, the music gods bless us with the perfect band at the perfect time in our lives. (In the Hindu tradition, there are celestial beings called gandharvas who inspire musicians and poets; distinct from the Devas or angels, but affiliated with them as well as the yaksha or warrior spirits, the gandharvas are the court musicians to the gods, and are depicted as having the heads of horses or birds. Birds, I get. They sing. Horses, not so much. Who knows? Maybe they used to sing too.) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was one of those bands for me.
I discovered BRMC quite by accident when my friend left a hard drive in 1124 Jester West, my dorm room at the University of Texas at Austin. It was my freshman year, would have been 2004 or 2005. I was full of piss and vinegar and anger at the universe generally and everything in it in particular and my parents and authority, buffeted mercilessly about by the vicissitudes of the bipolar disorder that would go diagnosed for another decade. I was discovering sex and drugs and had an endless appetite for new music, new genres, new anything. But nothing had the power to hit me like rock. Coming fresh out of high school with a love for Led Zeppelin that bordered on evangelical (I would not graduate to the 80s and Guns’N’Roses for another year), rock music was the foundation and pulse of my music experience. The more soaring and poetic, the better. Oblivious to the sheer pretension of so much of rock generally, and Zep in particular, I took as holy writ the lyrics to such arcane masterpieces as Zep’s “Achilles Last Stand” and Jethro Tull’s approximately 45-minute Opus, “Thick As A Brick.” But for all my wide-eyed worship, there was genuine rapture and beauty to be found, and I regret nothing, not even Aqua’s Aquarium, the first album I ever purchased, because in the sixth grade I had yet to know how to read subtle sarcasm, and David Darrow, who was (and presumably remains) cool, said it was awesome.
Jesus Christ almighty, I do not want to do my taxes. Not even a little bit.
But I digress. That hard drive, by rights the property of one Kenny Hughes, held, among other contents, BRMC’s Take Me On, On Your Own, an album that shook my musical consciousness to its very foundations and turned me on to a band that would prove to be a faithful companion through good times and bad, through my college years and beyond.
Take Me On, On Your Own was a perfect synthesis of everything I loved about rock— driving, anthemic rhythms, reverb-drenched swagger, lyrics fueled by angst and determination. But beyond their obvious rock appeal, BRMC, with their often introspective lyrics, expressing in poetic terms the hurts and burdens we all must carry, stirred something in my spirit. Arriving in my life a couple of years before I would teach myself to play the piano— crudely— and write songs, BRMC became an indelible influence on me as both a fan of music and as a musician.
My love for the band (and clearly impeccable taste) aside, and the consensus of fans worldwide, BRMC has never been a household name, nor have they enjoyed a particularly warm critical reception. So it seems unlikely that anyone will ever write this essay, if not me. Not to mention, I really, really do not want to do my goddamn fucking taxes. Fuck. So, without further ado, on to the main event— namely, the rankings and considerations I promised in the title.
Wikipedia lists BRMC’s discography as follows:
- B.R.M.C. (2001)
- Take Them On, On Your Own (2003)
- Howl (2005)
- Baby 81 (2007)
- The Effects of 333 (download only) (2008)
- Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (2010)
- Specter at the Feast (2013)
My love for the albums proceeds in the order, and for the reasons, to follow.
#1: Take Them On, On Your Own (2003)
If we take it as a given that all ranking systems for subjective experience are essentially arbitrary, reflecting more than anything the personal preferences of the person or people doing the ranking— and I do— then this should come as no surprise. I just laid out the reasons above, so I guess there’s no need to belabor the point. If I were trying to be more objective, it would probably be #3. So, sorry I guess, but I’m not sure to whom. The album maybe, if you’re some peculiar type of animist.
Rise Or Fall
We’re All In Love
#2: Howl (2005)
It’s a real toss-up between this album and 2010’s Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, the next album in this ranking (spoiler alert), but for me, Howl wins the day, both for the ratio of great songs to merely good or average ones, and for the sure-footed exploration of the band’s blues and country influences. That’s territory the band hasn’t explored since, as well as an approach I’d love to see them reprise in some way. Howl is a gem from start to finish, a bluesy, bluegrassy saga of sin and redemption, grief and gratification. The nods to Christian spirituality, present to various degrees through all of BRMC’s catalogue, find their most natural and open expression here, though not in a way that anyone could really find objectionable. Simply put, Howl is a beautiful album, and if you were to stop reading this to listen to it instead, I would understand and even encourage you to do so. I myself am listening to it as I type this, and will probably listen to it again to soothe the pain of doing my taxes.
EDIT: Holy shit. Howl is BRMC’s Led Zeppelin III. You could map it song by song. “Ain’t No Easy Way” is their “Immigrant Song,” etc. Will return to later. Maybe by then someone else will give a shit. Hope springs eternal.
Ain’t No Easy Way
Weight Of The World
#3: Beat The Devil’s Tattoo (2010)
This album has some of my absolute favorite BRMC songs, including the epic title track. It is arguably epic all the way through. It shows off a clear and satisfying sonic evolution from 2007’s Baby 81, which is next on this list (I have to stop doing that). There is a fuller and more focused embrace of the darker side of the band’s palette, musically as well as lyrically. This album is excellent, unlike doing your taxes, which is the worst.
Mama Taught Me Better
Beat The Devil’s Tattoo
#4: Baby 81 (2007)
Let me first say, in no uncertain terms: I love this album. It is a strong album. If another band had produced this album, I would love that band for it. Like most of the albums on this list, it was present in a very immediate way during a particular period in my life.
That being said, it’s just not as good as the albums above. Maybe because it’s more self-consciously cool? I mean, just look at that album cover. It’s trying a little too hard, just like I am at not doing my taxes.
Weapon Of Choice
Am I Only
#5: BRMC (2001)
Like Baby 81, BRMC’s first outing was strong, but not strong enough to earn a higher spot on this list— which, it is worth noting, has no bearing on anything of any consequence whatsoever. Prefiguring the various directions the band would come to take in their albums to come, the self-titled album made a splash, making the band “part of the ’garage rock revival’ revolution that spawned in the early 2000s,” according to Wikipedia, which I have no reason to suspect of ulterior motives. In fact, I suspect that this immediate branding of the band as part of some “garage rock revival” thingy is much of why critics pooh-pooh’ed— oh, how they pooh-pooh’ed!— the band’s subsequent work. There are people in this world who wander the desolate streets and haunt sad old dive bars, who await the messiah that will bring the Second Coming Of Rock’N’Roll, and are disappointed as band after band fails to conform to their expectations. Very often, these people are given platforms to express their disappointment.
This is all as it should be, in a nation where freedom of speech is valued. What also should be valued is a system of taxation that does not place an undue burden on a nation’s citizenry of navigating an archaic labyrinth of W-this’s and So-and-So-99Ts, deductions and abstractions and such confabulations as to drive one mad. That there is some bullshit.
#6: Specter At The Feast (2013)
You know, there’s just not that much to say about this album. It does indeed lack luster, so one might not inaccurately call it lackluster. They can’t all be home runs, right? There’s just nothing here that the band hasn’t done better elsewhere. “Funny Games” is pretty cool; “Fire Walker,” which kicks off the album, starts strong but then kind of goes nowhere, which isn’t a bad metaphor for the album itself, indeed the microcosm of it.
The album opens with “Let The Day Begin,” which is poignant if you know that Robert Turner’s father, Michael Been of “The Call,” wrote the song. Been died of a sudden heart attack in 2010, while touring with BRMC as a sound engineer.
What else? “Funny Games” is pretty cool. “Lullaby” is sweet. And if you squint, you might mistake “Rival” for “Rise Or Fall.” But overall, the album lives up to its title. At the banquet table of BRMC albums, this one is a a ghost.
(Like me, so far, tax-wise.)
#7: The Effects Of 333 (2008)
Honestly, this one doesn’t even belong on this list. It’s an anomaly, an entirely instrumental, brooding soundscape. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s a deep cut for the fans. If you’re into instrumental soundscapes, though, check it out.
Ajai Raj is a songwriter, comedian, and writer in New York City, where he can be found not doing his taxes.