Crate-Digging: The Jesus and Mary Chain – Automatic

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Warner Bros., 1989)

The Jesus and Mary Chain are an institution. It’s hard to imagine the 1980s without the band, and yet brothers William and Jim Reid absorbed the culture around them and spit it back out in a unique way – it’s almost like the band also shaped the 1980s. Prior to 1989’s Automatic, the band released their noise-pop debut Psychocandy – you should all know of its stature as one of the Most Important Records of the era, as it continues to inspire countless musicians – as well as its equally cool but more refined follow-up, Darklands. The band was ubiquitous within underground circles. All the marginal scenesters could relate to the dark, twisted pop, sometimes soaked in feedback, sometimes pounded out with drum-machine backing: the college rockers, industrial freaks, goths, and shoegazers all found something to latch onto. JAMC was carving out their niche, and allowing the most interesting outcasts to populate it. Dark glasses and nocturnal lifestyles were no-brainers – I believe the term “dead cool” was invented just for the band.

But it’s impossible to even begin to objectively discuss this record without addressing the elephant in the room. (It’s a good thing I’m not interested in “objectively,” too.) I’m referring, of course to “Head On.” Track seven. It’s a good song, here, leading off the second half of Automatic. But it’s a great song in the hands of the Pixies. Of course, Black Francis and his mates covered “Head On” on their 1991 swan song Trompe Le Monde, and their take on the tune is a bubblegum fuzz classic. In fact, I’d wager that it’s one of the five best instances of all time where the cover version outshines the original. (No supporting statistics necessary.) That’s hard to do folks. But a band like Pixies – it’s hard to sell them short. So even before I reach side two of the JAMC album, I’m anticipating “Head On” throughout the entire first half. Which, oddly, lends the entire album a perspective I wasn’t anticipating. The Jesus and Mary Chain, particularly on Automatic, compare favorably to Pixies. Now, granted, at this point in their career, the band was essentially a duo – the brothers Reid and a drum machine – as original drummer Bobby Gillespie went on to form his own alternative rock institution in Primal Scream. The bass, too, is often replicated by a synthesizer. Pixies of course were a four-piece alternative punk powerhouse, fully formed in their sound and much more dynamic than many of their peers. So in comparing JAMC to Pixies, I’m kind of insinuating that the former band is the tousle-headed little brother of the latter, even though they beat Pixies to an initial record release by two years.

Sorry about so much comparison here, but I couldn’t shake Trompe Le Monde from my mind as I listened. Perhaps it was Alan Moulder’s production – he’d go on to engineer records by shoegaze royalty such as My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, Ride, and Curve, all contemporaries of Pixies and who could all easily have fit on 4AD Records’ roster, Pixies’ label. Moulder thickened the Reids’ guitar sound, and sweetened the mix. And with the brothers’ songwriting deviating little from simple chord progressions in I-IV-V harmonic resolution, drawing heavily from songwriting tropes of the 1950s and ’60s and gussying them up with modern technology and effects, the recipe was right for a pleasurable and familiarly nostalgic listen. And deliver the band did, right out of the gate in fact, with one of my favorite songs of theirs, “Here Comes Alice.” In fact, it’s so universally appealing that the band could have taken it to a marketing firm, scored a cola commercial with it, and made off with some royalty cash. You have to wonder, then, if they thought so too, as they rattle off this cheeky line near the end of it: “Wrap your lips round a cool black Pepsi Coke,” perhaps sniggering at the intentional sabotage, as it’s obvious how impossible it would be to market something like this to one of the Big Two soda companies. Honestly, they could have sold it without the lyric, and I would have died watching JAMC soundtrack some supermodel Alice chugging product while strutting down a city street. I would have bought the drink, too.

See? "Dead cool."

Other high points include the bombastic “Coast to Coast,” “Between Planets,” and “Her Way of Praying,” the latter predicting the religious imagery of Honey’s Dead. But some songs have the tendency to overstay their welcomes – especially considering the limitations of the songwriting structures they’ve chosen. You can only go so far on three-chord, easily resolved songs, right? “Blues from a Gun,” for example, ends with a IV-V-I-I progression over and over, with the same lyric, “I guess that’s why I always got the blues,” repeated over it, ad nauseum. “UV Ray” and “Take It,” owing a bit more to the industrial pop scene at the time and really showcasing the drum machine, could at least last a minute less each. Even “Head On” stretches past the point of usefulness – Pixies slash their version of the 4:15 song in half. Extended outros are clearly not the Reids’ strong suit.

But that’s easier to forgive when your melodic chops are as good as The Jesus and Mary Chain’s. The band inhabits all the good things about The Sound of the 1980s (a sound which somehow snuck unnoticed into the early 1990s as well) – the rebellion, the youth, the disenchantment, the uncertainty, perfect for soundtracks to edgier teen movies. (Or insane teen movies like Doom Generation.) Case in point: I’m almost tricked into expecting the “hey, hey, hey, HEY!” of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in “Gimme Hell”’s bridge – but of course it’s not to be. Judd Nelson will have to settle for fist-pumping someone else’s visualization instead, I’m afraid.

I also kinda have this itch to scour MTV’s 120 Minutes archive at the moment…

RIYL: Pixies, Spiritualized, New Order

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