PERMANENT RECORDS: I WAS JUST A TEENAGE JESUS FREAK
As noted last week (and you can read more about the philosophy of this in that post), this is a year long project. Every Friday for 52 Fridays, I will choose a record, write about it, and upload my thoughts. The idea was borrowed from Chris Tamarri over at Crisis/Boring Change, a blog whose name I besmirched last week. Chris concedes that it can have a double meaning for comic book fans, but in reality, it's the sort of obscure musical reference that is normally near and dear to one as pretentious as myself. Here is his explanation: "And did I never tell you where 'Crisis/Boring Change' came from? (The title, I mean.) It's from the Pavement song, 'Gold Soundz,' off of Crooked Rain: 'Is it a crisis or a boring change?' So, you see, it's both a music and a comic reference. It's horribly unwieldy, I know, but that's one of the things I like about it."
If you got either connotation, big-up nerd points to you.
And, in the crass department, I remind you that, as always, this post will be full of links to Amazon. Click on any one of them to go shopping, and Amazon will shave a few pennies off their take to give to me. So, if my reviews make you all hot and bothered and you just have to own one of the things I'm talking about, use my link and contribute to buying me more stuff to review. (Those reading a Live Journal feed will likely have to click to the actual blog page first before heading over to Amazon, though.) Either way, thanks for reading. Ready, set, enjoy!
51. THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN - AUTOMATIC (1989)
Personnel/Producers: William Reid & Jim Reid
Engineered by Alan Moulder/ Label: Warner Bros./Blanco y Negro
I'm here on a rescue mission. I want to save Automatic from its bad reputation.
It's not that The Jesus & Mary Chain's third album is generally considered to be abysmal or anything quite so extreme. The problem is that a lot of people take a very dismissive attitude to it. The Virgin Encyclopedia of Indie & New Wave, for example, give it merely one unimaginative line in their JAMC entry, and then award it two stars, the lowest of any of the band's albums rated. Fans seem to take a similar attitude (or, at least, in my personally gathered anecdotal evidence; I'm likely to get e-mails declaring, "What? You're crazy! We lurv it!"). The general consensus: Automatic exists, it has two really classic songs ("Head On" and "Blues From a Gun") and that's that, move along. Why is this? Is it a sort of snobbery? MTV took a real liking to the Reid brothers around this time and played the shit out of "Head On," encouraging suburban kids like myself who were scared of the band's slightly blasphemous name to take the plunge once and for all, risking hellfire and damnation in the name of rock 'n' roll. That certainly sounds like success on JAMC terms if ever I heard it.
Is it how clean the record sounds? The glossy production coupled with the big marketing push could be seen as selling out, but how grand is your bid for mainstream success when the first four lines on the disc inform us that we desire a particular girl because "her heart is black" and then compares her to "ice cream sliding into a crack"? The song--"Here Comes Alice"--only gets lyrically filthier from there, with references to sweat, sucking mud, and "get your lips round a cool black Pepsi Coke." Certainly not what the advertising agencies are looking for to sell soft drinks. Particularly since the closing refrain of "here she comes" is no doubt meant to suggest more than the "walking down the street" Alice did at the start of the song.
Then the second song, "Coast to Coast." It's all about drugs. It's not even one of those songs that you can pretend is actually about something else because its euphemisms are posable. It's about getting high, needing to get high, being as fucking high as you possibly can and loving it. (And, for the record, may have the reciprocal orgasm for Alice, what with the insistent chant, "Here I come, here I come.")
Even so, I concede that this record sounds like it was produced with an ear towards pop, but what the hell is wrong with that? The boys are writing the same songs, they are playing them the same way, they just recorded them differently. It makes me think it might have been spectacularly cool if George Martin had produced an album by The Velvet Underground. Automatic is like the Revolver of heroin chic.
And I don't namecheck Revolver just for the music. That could be a title for a JAMC LP, easy. In fact, I never considered this, but Automatic is a gun reference itself. The JAMC iconography is in full effect: guns, God, and gutters. The album's cover is the best representation of the band's visual image one can imagine: the duo in the heart of a star, William folding his fingers into a pistol and pointing it at the audience. Prepare to be assaulted with hard-edged glamour.
In essence, I would argue that Automatic is the center of the band's career. It's the point around which everything Jesus & Mary Chain revolves. The scruffed-up Beach Boys-sound of Psychocandy and the desperate landscapes of Darklands turned into an adrenaline fueled weekend in Vegas, making way for the rough mornings of the fuzzy-headed Honey's Dead and put-some-cream-in-my-coffee hangover breakfast of Stoned & Dethroned. This is the million-dollar high they'd been climbing to, and without it, there'd be no comedown.
"Head On" stands out still as that amazingly brilliant track that most bands pray they will find one day. Even the Pixies' malicious and ill-conceived cover version could not diminish its radiance. The other eleven songs sit on an equal plain, each as good as the next, slices off the same fattened calf. "Between Planets" is a chugged up interception of '60s FM radio, intercepted light years away on the transmission's trajectory through the cosmos, where some aliens are just now discovering The Beatles and "Mr. Ed." Elsewhere, "Half Way to Crazy" is a musical reproduction of those days when everything has been on a roll for so long, you can't help but think there's a wall somewhere waiting to be smashed into. You might even speed up the process and smash yourself against something on purpose. And it's about love, a twisted emotional addiction you can't kick. "Tongue tied and tied to the tongue."
Then there's "Drop," a precursor of things to come, a hint of where this will all land. Acoustic, simple, cynical. "Making out you're flying, but you've just been thrown." Imagine it like a warning note wrapped around a rock and tossed through your window. If I was to write a parody of a JAMC song, I'd probably come up with something like the song's final verse: "I should have guessed/ When I took that pill/ Do I love her still/ Well did Jesus kill?" Lyrically, the whole of Automatic is William Reid at his most distilled, his fractured poetry broken further down until only buzzwords remain. "Unpeel ice cool velvet skin" and "Hip shake gunning kick start and I'm running" and "Don't split it scrape it/ Your screaming automatic pain." Take the history of rock 'n' roll, write it out on one long piece of paper, toss a handful of darts at it, and then string together the words you pierce.
"Drop" ends the album alongside "Sunray," both songs clocking in at under two minutes (the other ten are all over three). If "Drop" is the warning, then "Sunray," a jagged instrumental, is the delivery. "Drop" is waking up, getting out of bed, your head like a blood-soaked ball of cotton, and "Sunray" is the fatal error of pulling open the curtains. It hurts, but in such a way that you want to go out and start the process again. Butt this up against "Reverence," the opener of album four, and you'll discover you have a straight line to that sunny day on which it'll be good to die.
Which is something music should make us feel more often, this sense of elevation where we look down at our own mortality and say, "Fuck it."
And that's where I am, up there on the precipice. I noticed Automatic standing there, teetering, waiting maybe a little too long for that helping hand, and I couldn't not leap forward and grab it and pull it back. This is a great album, maybe as good as it gets, its revolution being the apparent lack of one. It just is, it just rocks. Part of me suspects it's what Phil Spector heard in his head the night he allegedly pulled the trigger, part of me knows this is all a bunch of kerpuffle. As the Reid Bros. would say on their last album togehter, "What do you want if you don't want love?" Well, nine years prior, they offerred a dozen different options. Take as many as you can grab.
Current Soundtrack: Jesus & Mary Chain, Munki
Current Mood: on the prowl
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2005 Jamie S. Rich