Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has returned to their alt-road ways with their fourth release, Baby 81, a record far more in line with their first two albums, 2001’s B.M.R.C. and their 2003 breakthrough, Take Them On, On Your Own, than their last, 2005’s acoustic Howl. Baby 81 does display a greater blues tinge than Black Rebel Motorcycle Club previously has had electric, but unfortunately they’ve lost some of their hook-iness.
In 2004, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club lost their label, Virgin, because of conflict, and then their drummer, Nick Jago, due to drug and alcohol problems. In 2005 they signed with RCA, and Jago returned, but he was only able to get in on one Howl track. After living up to their name with the hard-hitting B.M.R.C. and Take Them On, Howl disappointed many fans with its soul-blues. Baby 81 will certainly please those fans, though the band’s return is perhaps a little too complete, as their new release mirrors those worthy predecessors a little too closely, with perhaps too much of the gospel-inflected Howl being thrown to the wolves.
The first single off of Baby 81, “Weapon of Choice”, sort of encapsulates the album. A nice mix between road and rock, “Choice” is very in line with early singles like “Whatever Happened to My Rock ‘n’ Roll (Punk Song)” and “Stop”, but doesn’t quite match those songs in effectiveness. Better is their hopefully next single, the preceding “Berlin”, whose driving pressure is intense, but the song also features a smart aleck-y catchiness with its rhythmic, rhyming lyrics, including the great chorus line, “What happened to the revolution?” In general, Baby 81’s more straightforward tracks are better when they contain some of that wry attitude, such as with “Not What You Wanted”, “Lien On Your Dreams”, or “Need Some Air”, than when they don’t, such as with “Took Out a Loan” or “Cold Wind”.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is not strictly a ‘road-rock’ band with driving bass lines, but has always had its slower, more haunting side, and Baby 81 is no exception. In this, the band is actually better when they’re more ambitious. The marriage of an uplifting score and downbeat subject works very well on “All You Do Is Talk”, which grows nicely, from a ‘voice in an empty hall’ opening, into an encompassing harmony. And the most emotional, and most moving, song on the record is its finisher, “Am I Only”, which changes nicely between a stripped-down-but-with-strings verse, and a more orchestral chorus. But there isn’t quite enough variety within “Windows”, “Killing the Light”, and “American X”, all of which drag on too long, though with “American X”, that’s not as much of a problem as the song’s nine minutes-plus running time would make it appear.
After all the upheaval in 2004 and 2005, it’s understandable that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club would want to return to their roots, and it wasn’t a bad decision. “666 Conductor”, the only track on Baby 81 that really owes something to Howl, is not one of 81’s strongest pieces. But returning to your roots always carries the risk of retread-ism and diminishing returns. That’s not entirely, or even mostly, the case with Baby 81, but the smell of it is in the record’s air. If Howl was too much of a break with the past, then Baby 81 was perhaps too much a continuation, of what is still a remarkable history.
MP3 Stream: “Berlin”