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I see where the White Stripes canceled their summer festival dates, the Raveonettes and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were frequent replacements on the main stage. So maybe something good will come out of this ’80s revival after all. I’ve been wondering if the diagonal-stripes and faux-hawk legions were ever gonna realize that the cool kids didn’t listen to Duran Duran. Now, finally, they’re digging in the used bin for the Jesus and Mary Chain the way I used to seek out the Velvet Underground.
I bring this up because you can’t mention the Raveonettes or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club without acknowledging their debt to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s distortion-glittered sound, jaded lyrics, apathetic stage stance—hell, even the haircut. It’s fucking embarrassing. I was standing around the bar after a BRMC show last year, explaining to a historically-challenged friend why they sound like the JAMC, and some flunky urged me to keep it down. The band cannot deny the comparison, but don’t want to hear it. The Raveonettes take it better, or at least deepen the references: At an NYC show in June, their encore kicked off with the distinctive minimal beat of “Just Like Honey,” but bloomed into a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” with a thick coating of Metal Machine Music.
The Raveonettes are a boy-girl duo from Denmark, which is either so dead or so enlightened that songwriter Sune Rose Wagner swears he learned everything he knows about music from the public library. The Raveonettes also use a rather Danish Dogma 95 approach: their debut EP was entirely in B-flat minor, nothing over three minutes, no ride cymbals, etc. For the full-length Chain Gang of Love, they expand into B-flat major: While a certain sameness sets in after minute 30, glittering amid the downtuning are perfect bazooka pop songs, both bubblegum and firepower. “That Great Love Sound,” the first single, scores a direct hit: the beat in your toes, the buzz in your ears, all jingling with anticipation and winding up into a chorus that’s swagger and self-doubt over enormous guitar chords. Likewise, “Noisy Summer” is pure sugar-candy-coated vocals and fairy bells gradually submerged in a rising sunshower of fuzz, like a fighter plane landing at a children’s party.
Topically, the Raveonettes fixate on B-movie material, a name-dropping decadence, all the words and none of the meanings. Perhaps it’s the difficulties of pulp fiction as a second language, or simply a reduction of the whole dangerous/cynical rock pose to a 25-word vocabulary—or maybe, as they themselves point out, “Black leather and sex/It’s not that complex.” But their close and constant blending of boy-girl voices sounds more like teenage hubris, the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll. “Let’s Rave On” follows a juvenile delinquent couple down to Rockaway Beach, listening to the Shangri-Las on the local as the express screeches past, talking how they’re gonna hang out, make out, make trouble; “Heartbreak Stroll” mines the same need for sex and Ritalin with its double-time tambourine and repeated “Come on baby! Right now!” Even when the Raveonettes’ tunes stumble, or drift into self-parody, they don’t break the momentum but keep hurtling toward something better, or at least something else—and when you’re a bored teenager, isn’t that the same thing?
If the Raveonettes are wearing borrowed leather jackets and smoking stolen cigarettes and dreaming about getting out of here, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have left home and fucked up for three or four years, taking themselves with attendant seriousness—they’re from San Francisco, one’s a second-generation musician, etc. Take Them On, On Your Own is almost twice as long as Chain Gang of Love and has three fewer tracks, but that’s because they’re making rock songs, not pop tunes. As the MC5-esque title insinuates, politics come up, more provocation and sloganeering than Bono didacticism, but the big theme is dissociation: from your government, your parents, your generation, too cool to flick the lighter yourself but happy to see it burn.
Of course, all that apathy doesn’t rule out swagger. The slow-lighting opener and single “Stop” asserts, “We don’t like you/We just want to try you,” but it’s backed by an army of guitars and an ocean of dry ice. “Six-Barrel Shotgun” repeatedly reassures us that no one will be killed even as it plows down everything in its path—the sheer mass of sound, the density, the volume, the elaborate little codas at the end of every song are designed to impress and certainly do. “Rise or Fall” seamlessly welds all the pieces together into something shiny and unstoppable: submerged vocals, skittery guitars, droning bass, tension-release structure, driving drums. There’s even an abrupt gear shift that works—the acoustic, a cappella “And I’m Aching.” And unlike most noise-focused bands, BRMC do not skimp on drum talent, which lets them sprawl out further and chance more adventurous song structure. My favorite of these is “U.S. Government.” It was originally entitled “Kill the U.S. Government,” but, well, you know how things are—’80s revivals will always have their limitations.
The Raveonettes play Bowery Ballroom September 8.