Two Retro-Fetishists Back from the Dead End
Fri Sept 9, Neumo's, 8 pm, $10, 21+
Back in the mid-'90s, before either the Dandy Warhols or the Brian Jonestown Massacre had really been discovered, the two retro-hip, 1960s-adoring bands were best pals. At that time, filmmaker Ondi Timoner became infatuated with the story of the two bands and went on to document how their friendship became a rivalry. She ended up hanging around the musicians for seven years and turning the footage into the highly acclaimed 2004 documentary Dig! (now available on DVD)—wherein the Dandies went on to success abroad, while BJM frontman Anton Newcombe doomed the future of his band by repeatedly shooting himself in the foot. As the Dandies made all the right career moves, Newcombe became intensely jealous, belittling the Portland act's songwriting and eventually stalking the band. Much of the film also focused on Newcombe's penchant for physically attacking members of his own band and firing them onstage.
The rise and fall of drug-addled rock bands has been sufficiently covered in film, but Dig! was involving because of the eccentricity of its principal characters. Newcombe is a bright, hard-working perfectionist, paranoid egotist, and calamity instigator, while Dandy Warhols singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor is a talented, egomaniacal would-be rock star who at one point in the film says, "I sneeze and hits come out."
Highlighting that very little has changed since Dig! was made, both BJM and the Dandies have new records that cement each band's reputation as it was laid out in the film. BJM, whose 2003 record ...And This Is Our Music proclaimed on its cover "So young, so brave. So totally right on from the fucking get-go" has a new EP called We Are the Radio. Never shy about trumpeting his own horn, Newcombe says in the press sheet of the EP, "(Co-writer/vocalist) Sara and I believe this to be the most important work of our lives, and to a greater extent, our time."
Trying to conjure a new Nico, Newcombe's current, breathy-voiced collaborator Sara Beth Tuceck sings songs with provocative titles such as "Never Become Emotionally Attached to Man, Woman, Beast, or Child." But her vocals are uninspired and wispy. The five jangly guitar songs on We Are the Radio meander around like a wasted kid in the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show. For unabashed psychedelia, this music is less trippy than your grandma's wallpaper.
Newcombe is called a "genius" in Dig! repeatedly, but that's just a reminder of how that word is thrown around nowadays until it has the same meaning as "talented" or "weird." The songs on We Are the Radio are pleasant, but very slight; the band—which has become a "revolving door collective" since Dig!'s release—seems destined to forever remain a cult item.
This is in utter contrast to the Dandies, who with each new release seem to be teetering on the edge of actual stardom. Taylor-Taylor and collaborator Gregg Williams are skillful hit makers. Their whole junkie/bohemian/fashion-conscious/swirly guitar vibe naturally appeals more to the European market, where the Dandies headline massive festivals and get plenty of airtime on MTV.
Any number of hiply titled songs on their latest record Odditorium or Warlords of Mars could be their stateside "Wonderwall." Taylor-Taylor whispers the vocals on the enchanting, multi-layered, percussive-heavy "Love Is the New Feel Awful," one of the catchiest songs to come out this year. Another tune that sounds like an alternative rock hit of 1993 is "Everyone Is Totally Insane" with its drugged-out, tripping-through-the-hallway-of-a-house-party groove. The album's first single "Smoke It," is a silly, frenetic number with random lyrics such as "Alimony palimony/Don't get too drunk in Vegas/At least not with a waitress/From any of those places/People got more baggage than JFK/And I'm talking about the airport man/You gotta smoke it!"
It's not completely fair that in the battle for rock supremacy the Dandies usually come out on top of their old allies, BJM. But while the Dandies seem to effortlessly craft hits, Newcombe remains trapped in 1967, over-idolizing Syd Barrett and producing dated psychedelia. He needs to find a standout vocalist, who is also willing to accede the spotlight. Until then, the Brian Jonestown Massacre will remain a spontaneously exciting band of the car wreck sort, while the Dandies increase their chances of taking over the firstname.lastname@example.org