Fusing simple pop melodies with industrial-strength guitar distortion, stuttering drum beats and caricatured lyrical perversity in a cauldron of echo and attitude, the Jesus and Mary Chain — Scottish brothers Jim (mainly vocals) and William (mainly guitar) Reid — created a modern sound so far over the top of all other “Sister Ray” jumpstarters that it became as directly influential on subsequent bands as the Velvet Underground itself. An absolutely brilliant singles band stuck behind an unflinchingly enervated and insular pose, the narrow-minded duo (plus as many as three other players for live purposes) made inconsequential creative progress, raising and lowering the sonic chaos drawbridge without damage while keeping its songwriting remarkably consistent (some might say repetitive) until calling it quits informally at the end of 1998 and officially in October 1999. One great idea is plenty.
Awash in feedback and fuzz, tunes and drones, wit and vulgarity, Psychocandy is the quintessentially tense, claustrophobic soundtrack to these pressurized, multiphasic times — easy-listening Brillo for troubled teens. The band’s three exceptional pre-LP singles (“Never Understand,” “You Trip Me Up,” “Just Like Honey”) are only the most immediately striking of the fourteen cuts; such others as “Inside Me,” “Cut Dead” and “Sowing Seeds” further illustrate the group’s variety, imagination and ability to enthrall. (The European CD helpfully appends the post-LP single, “Some Candy Talking.”)
Typical of the Reids’ determined anti-conformism, Darklands all but eliminates the characteristic crazed sound of the first LP, leaving skeletal guitar-pop songs — menacingly restrained and drenched in echo — colored only occasionally with familiar washes of fuzz guitar. Displaying a notable mid-’60s Dylan influence (check the verses of “Deep One Perfect Morning”) and delivering their best song yet, “Happy When It Rains,” the album predictably put off fickle fans and critics disappointed by the stylistic regression. Nonetheless, “April Skies,” “Down on Me,” “Darklands,” “Nine Million Rainy Days” and “Fall” (“I’m as dead as a Christmas tree…”) stand proudly as exceptional and truly original pop fare for the ’80s. (Incidentally, for a thoughtful if hyperbolic analysis of the band’s early stages, read John Robertson’s 1988 biography.)
One of J&M’s fetishes is to release singles in as many different formats as possible. As a result, there are numerous 12-inch and 10-inch EPs, double-pack 7-inch singles and CD EPs (some of which are listed above) which add live tracks, acoustic demos, remixes, outtakes and other ephemera. A batch of those, with the addition of a cool T. Rexy new single, “Sidewalking,” comprise Barbed Wire Kisses (B-sides and More): 16 (20 on the CD and cassette) arcane tales from the Chain’s darkside. Not a cohesive album and far from consistently excellent, it offers a helpful recapitulation of what the group does in its spare time. Targets include the Beach Boys (the demented slaughter of “Kill Surf City” and a semi-reverent version of “Surfin USA”) and Bo Diddley (a devolved rendition of “Who Do You Love” and, on the tape/CD, a similar-sounding tribute, “Bo Diddley Is Jesus”). Not a quick fix for fanatics lacking a complete collection, Barbed Wire Kisses merely points the direction in which the obscurities lie.
The devastating Dylanized T. Rexisms of “Blues From a Gun” (the 12-inch EP adds three non-LP tracks, two of which — including the killer surf dementia of “Penetration,” unrelated to any other song by that name — also appear on the CD-3, rounded out with a lovely near-acoustic version of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl”) previewed Automatic, a lazy but entertaining album the Reids recorded with no assistance other than a live drummer on one song. (The mindless synth-drums are one of the record’s main problems.) No longer in search of — or shying away from — the ultimate guitar distortion, the Reids hold to a loud down-the-middle sound over which Jim can sing what have become fairly predictable lyrics. As cynical and plastic as the approach here is, an incisive pop sense invigorates “Blues from a Gun,” the Lou Reedish “Halfway to Crazy” and another irresistible single, “Head On,” which sticks a venerable rock’n’roll riff into a song that seems to allow a bit of warped positivism into the band’s perverse fantasies of self-degradation: “I’m taking myself to the dirty part of town / Where all my troubles can’t be found.” (The CD adds an acoustic/strings version of “Drop” sung by William and a pointless dance/noise instrumental, “Sunray.”)
The CD-3 of the Head On EP (a three-song 12-inch) has a remix of the acoustic “Drop” (without the strings) and two non-LP tracks: “In the Black” and “Break Me Down.” (The “Head On” 7-inch was issued in four different sleeves, with four different B-sides.) Despite a concerted effort to ruin Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” the only good thing on the Rollercoaster EP is “Lowlife,” a buzzing tune with a new (for the Chain) chord progression and loads of tremolo guitar noise; the by-the-numbers “Rollercoaster” has half a hook and way too much echo.
The six-song Peel Session EP is notable for its first half: a February 1985 document of Psychocandy songs played by the short-lived quartet (with future Primal Scream leader Bobby Gillespie on drums) that originally recorded them. The rest of the live-in-the-studio disc is from November 1986 and mixes a preview of Darklands‘s “Fall” with the non-LP “Happy Place” and “In the Rain.”
Beginning with the dauntingly vicious sneer — “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ” — of the jangly dance drone “Reverence,” Honey’s Dead fires a pile of great tunes down a wind tunnel of sensual guitar aggression. Sharing the vocal responsibilities 60/40 for the first time, Jim and William kick out the venal jams like an inspired ’90s T. Rex, altering the proportion of a few familiar ingredients to differentiate such winning blasts of grimy beauty as “Far Gone and Out,” “Catchfire,” “Rollercoaster” (retrieved from a 1990 EP), “Sugar Ray,” “Teenage Lust” and the semi-gentle “Good for My Soul” and “Almost Gold.” (That last song was made into an EP with three live tracks.) Able to navigate loud and soft with unwavering allure, whispery menace and irresistible pop power, the Reids demonstrate their mastery of studio dynamics on an album that almost rivals Psychocandy as a statement of renewed purpose. Only now they’ve developed a sense of humor: “Frequency” ends the album by interleaving “Reverence” and the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” a song of notable influence on them.
The Sound of Speed is a second B-sides compilation (covering 1989ï¿½93) from the format fetishists, whose vinyl, cassettes and CDs inevitably have substantial content differences. The 20 electric and acoustic tracks include variant versions of “Reverence,” “Sidewalking” and “Teenage Lust,” the band’s contribution to The Crow soundtrack (“Snakedriver”) and an assortment of other reasonably good second-shelf originals. “Something I Can’t Have” and the techno-sequenced “Penetration” are entirely album-worthy; “Why’d You Want Me” (plucked off the “Far Gone and Out” single) is excellent. The mellow folk-rocker has bowed string bass and refreshingly candid lyrics: “Why did you let me in? / I’ve got no shoes / I’ve always got the blues / I gave myself to drink and drugs and filth.” Like Barbed Wire Kisses, The Sound of Speed contains typically revealing and idiosyncratic cover versions. The Temptations’ “My Girl” receives touching respect in a quietly simple rendition, while Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” gets the full Chain-rattling treatment and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” is pulverized in a crunching all-out noise pedal festival. The 13th Floor Elevators’ “Reverberation” almost comes out sounding like one of their songs, but a solid, reverent rip leaves Jerry Reed’s twangy “Guitar Man” standing in Atlanta.
Letting the sonic pressure off as never before, the Reids made Stoned & Dethroned nearly safe for the entire family. For those familiar with the band’s audio violence, the threat alone is enough; it’s possible to hear these lightly delivered pop tunes, some edged in attenuated savagery, as explosions-in-waiting. That tension gives the record an effective emotional undertow. (Ignorance of the overload circuitry waiting in vain to be switched on will cause an incomplete appreciation of what otherwise appears to be a restrained batch of pop tunes.) The album’s stylistic cohesion survives a bunch of studio musicians, an annotated division of labor that credits each Reid for his own songs (occasionally relegating Jim to an incidental role) and two guest vocalists: Shane MacGowan on “God Help Me” and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval on “Sometimes Always,” a Sonny and Cher-like duet with Jim (also issued as an all-quiet-on-the-studio-front EP with two non-album tracks and a pretty remake of Automatic‘s “Drop”). More unsettling than the album’s light folk-rocky touch, however, is the sporadically upbeat mood (yeuch!) and the weakness of its material. There simply aren’t enough memorable variations on the band’s three-chord theme here. Four are really good (“Sometimes Always,” “Never Saw It Coming,” “Between Us” and “She”) and a couple more are passable, but the rest of the tunes simply evaporate. The lack of songwriting spunk is fatal to such indifferent performances.
Perhaps that’s why The Jesus and Mary Chain Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll. The album is yet another rarities compilation: four new tracks (trivial except for the title tune and the raw noise of the Stones-quoting “33 1/3”) from a ’95 British EP, the cinematic “Snakedriver” again, a lewd dance mix of “Teenage Lust,” “Penetration” and “Something I Can’t Have” (both in better-mastered versions than appear on The Sound of Speed) and five recent B-sides, one written by Stoned & Dethroned bassist Ben Lurie. Alternately acoustic and blisteringly electric, short and far from sweet, the strong set pivots on William’s venomous and deliciously masochistic titular kamikaze spew, which reaches an existential breakthrough in the line “I hate rock’n’roll hates me.” Other notable tracks are his finger-picking blues “New York City,” Jim’s “The Perfect Crime” (from the Sometimes Always EP) and an almost-collapsing bash wryly entitled “I’m in With the Out Crowd.” You have to know where you belong in life, and the Reids most assuredly do.
The five 2006 album reissues are DualDiscs, each with a DVD side of three videos.
Although it’s something of an afterthought for a band that had essentially finished its work, Munki is a respectable enough representation. Released by Creation in the UK and Sub Pop in the US, the self-produced album begins (perversely enough) with “iloverocknroll” (bookended with a gloriously raucous reprise of “ihaterocknroll”) and proceeds to enforce the opinion in songs named for “moetucker” (weakly sung by the Reids’ kid sister Linda, who records as Sister Vanilla) and “supertramp” (not that the lyrics concern either); classic songs provide other titles: “dreamlover,” “manonthemoon” and the partly acoustic “neverunderstood.” Continuing down the same path, Bob Dylan, Elvis and the Rolling Stones get namechecked, not that any of it matters. For all intents and purposes, though, the band’s meaningfulness has been long since lost, and the fact that they can go through the motions adequately is all that counts. The tunes are tunes, the guitars buzz and sizzle and the vocals are blandly enthusiastic. That’s enough for a final bow.
In ’99, Jim Reid and longtime J&M guitarist Ben Lurie, with drummer Nick Sanderson (also a J&M alumni) and ex-Gun Club bassist Romi Mori formed Freeheat. The band was no more by the time its first album was released in 2006, and the word was that Jim was preparing a solo project. William’s first post-Chain release was the one-man-band Lazycame CD, Finbegin, which is a strange piece of business. It alternates between sections of songs that are simple, familiar and (to be generous about it) unfussed-over, mostly acoustic but with lots of echo (which is not quite the tried and true Reid formula) and formless noise rambles that could be by any bedroom tape manipulator. The most appealing track here is an unlisted bonus, the pretty “Pastelblue,” sung by Sister Vanilla. Apart from the dubious music, the album does have a fascinating booklet, which contains pictures and poems, one called “Laughing Gas” that is explicity (if belatedly) about Nirvana: “Kurt wasn’t fat / He was mad as ahat.” In its Dylanesque syntax, “Lime Stains” promises “itryt to love everyone i meet,” while another admits “foryearsivebeenpretendingtobecool justlikeveryoneelse.” Whatever William was thinking about all those years in a group with his brother, going it alone seems to have freed a much more ambivalent and self-conscious personality. And a much more careless musician.