Prog-Rocking Beats

B-Sides gets intimate with Rhino Records' new Genesis reissues, then catches up with the cool cats in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

May 16, 2007 at 4:00 am
The girl turns in her seat on the bus and motions toward him. The all-state band contest is over, and so is the performance year for ninth-graders. He's trumpet. She's flute. He thumbs the volume knob of his Walkman, which is as big as a Kleenex box because the year is 1986, and raises his eyebrows.

"Can I borrow that?"

What can he say? She's flute.

"Sure, but I only brought a couple of tapes."

She lunges back to his seat. He digs in his backpack and shows her the cases. Genesis. Abacab. Genesis. Duke.

"I like that one," she says, pointing one perfect chewed pink nail at Abacab.

"I love 'Man on the Corner.'"

"That's my least favorite," she says. "I like the one after it. Thanks!"

What comes after "Man on the Corner" is "Like It or Not," weepy piffle about a damaged relationship. She knows about damaged relationships? She's fourteen.

"They say that girls mature faster than boys," she says, looking past him and out the bus window.

"Not really. Girls just learn to like boy-girl music — love songs — first. Until they're 30, boys, believing that they are sexual and social outcasts, prefer boy-boy music. Songs made by boys. Songs that say, 'Let's stay in the club as long as we can.'"

Which makes Genesis, an English band formed by boarding-school nerds with Church of England names (Peter Gabriel, Michael Rutherford, Anthony Banks) whose first boy-girl songs featured sibling incest and a divine hermaphrodite, the ultimate boy-boy band, ergo the best band ever.

"I know about Genesis," she says, impatient now. "They made boy songs for presexual types" — she squints at him — "but drummer Phil Collins was into girls instead of being an uptight schoolboy, so he loosened up the others while dumbing down the music after he took over singing."

"Ah, but Rutherford wrote 'Like It or Not,'" he says. She rolls her eyes. "In the future, though, when Abacab comes out again mixed in 5.1 with a separate stereo disc drawn from the new surround master, I'm sure I'll like that song more."

"Whatever," she says. She looks down at his open backpack. "What are those?"

"Those are the DVD-Audio discs," he says. He has her attention.

"Abacab's open spaces, skeletal guitar lines and hulking beats tear away the chummy insulation of the band's previous albums and expose its boy-boy heart to air, a move that would cause its eventual mutation to a boy-girl jukebox," she says, surprised at her own ardor.

"You've got it," he says. "Banks' keyboard parts buzz rather than simper, Collins finds sharp new corners of his glassy tenor, and Rutherford worries his bass and guitar frets with minimalist grace. The largely improvised setting melts the writerly chill of past albums. Of course, that insularity was part of the boy appeal, and these five albums chart the ebb and flow of writers honing their playing and players honing their studio skills and then working again on their writing."

She nods and sits down next to him. "What about the other albums?"

"Purists still complain that guitarist Hackett's departure after Wind and Wuthering crippled Genesis," he whispers. "That's wrong. And Then There Were Three loses its balance after the flinty 'Down and Out,' wobbling from keyboard solo to keyboard solo before succumbing to the pillow talk of 'Follow You, Follow Me.' But it's persuasive talk, buttressed by Latin percussion that sits up in the new mix like an e — " he pauses and looks around — "an erection in math class."

She blushes, but her smile doesn't fade. She leans into him. "After a nap and Collins' divorce," she says, "the band tosses out a cupboard full of noodles, hooks up its first drum machine and makes an American hit, Collins' 'Misunderstanding,' on the stoic, twilit Duke."

"The DVD includes indispensable footage from the band's most vital tour," he tells her as they admire Duke's cover. He kisses her cheek and then goes on: "Remastering engineer Nick Davis emphasizes group dynamics over individual attack. The sound is sometimes compressed and the reverb overbright, but the set makes a case for these albums as a band achieving greatness."

"Wait," she says as the bus slows and the school looms. "What's a DVD?"
— Scott Wilson

Genesis 1976-1982 (Rhino) was released on Tuesday, May 15.

Uneasy Riders

"I took out a loan on my empty heart, babe/I took out a loan for my patient soul" aren't the most celebratory opening lines from a fairly successful band. But that's the setup guiding the intro of "Took Out a Loan," from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's latest opaque opus, Baby 81. In between the trio's well-worn, deceitful gal-pal ruminations are a splattering of inverted business phraseologies ("Lien on Your Dreams") and battle plans ("Weapon of Choice"), with lyrics of continuing letdowns: "Can't change all the things I've done, I know." By the end of Baby, one gets the sense that this trio is still frustrated with being misunderstood as a bunch of also-rans.

Guitarist/vocalist Peter Hayes, groggy on the horn from a British press jaunt in between tours, hesitates to identify the seed of the lolling lyrical spite. "I'm not sure where [the lyrics] come from," he says. "It's more about looking for who's listening, and who cares to express it in some way." If anything, BRMC are just genetically encoded with those vague "fuck the Man" sentiments that have sifted through west-coast bands for decades.

Black-clad cads with doomy sounds and rumors of biz connections (bassist/vocalist Robert Levon Been's dad is the Call's Michael Been) are still easy targets, though. And the members of BRMC have taken their hits in the past, especially around the release of their 2001 self-titled debut, which arrived in the post-Strokes/Hives signing-frenzy era where anything remotely greased of the garage was lumped together. But BRMC formed within a Cali psych-pop scene in 1998 — making them actually ahead of the curve of Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired shoegazer bands blasting away today (Black Angels, Darker My Love, Black Mountain). And 2005's rootsy Howl gained them some crit cred, although the hipsters seemed to have moved on.

Despite Baby's occasionally bitter-bitten lyrics, however, the music is the most stimulating the band has created so far. The upped amps and rowdier rhythms may at first feel like return to the band's earlier squall of sound, but Hayes laughs and says, "That's a catchphrase that's come up — 'a return.' But this album was drawing from Howl a lot, actually. It's just plugging the guitar back in. But instead of attacking you the whole time, we're trying to find some more to it." The "more" comes in as the Nirvana-nudged "Cold Wind" and the Lennon-esque la-las of "Window" and "Not What You Wanted." But overall, the album retains Howl's stripped-down production — louder guitars, yes, but not with the layered distortion waves of the first two records.

Indeed, Baby 81 contains a mood of rattled but enduring confidence. The group even culls from its archives a tender, acoustic teen-era tune, "Am I Only." "That's one I wrote when I was seventeen," Hayes says. "I always shied away from it because I didn't like how it rhymed. But it's a good song, y'know, and I guess I shouldn't worry about that too much. There's nothing wrong with being seventeen and writing a song like that. [This album] is like a definite closure, in that we're about done introducing ourselves to people." — Eric Davidson

8 p.m. Sunday, May 22. Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $15. 314-726-6161.