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“What the hell are these guys up to?” Any respectable Jesus and Mary Chain album should leave you asking that question repeatedly. There’s an art to bewilderment, to constantly skewering an audience’s expectations; early on, especially, Jim and William Reid derived great delight from dashing the hopes of devout fans who thought they knew what they were getting.
What you’re getting on this four-disc career-spanner is the stuff JAMC buried, in studio vaults or on B-sides, flexi-records, cassette tapes. As the band released only one flat-out classic—1985’s still-shimmering, still-shocking Psychocandy (though follow-up Badlands at least comes close)—you might be skeptical that their two-decade career merits such a lavish odds ‘n’ sods project. But these guys were rubbish as careerists, essentially banishing much of their stronger material to the depths. So think of The Power of Negative Thinking as the great unveiling.
A few A-sides serve as placemakers, like the feedback assault/distortion binge “Upside Down”—a most unlikely hit. That noise-fest theme carries through to prodigal flip sides “Vegetable Man” and “Suck,” both from the winter of ’84-’85: These were your riot-inducers at places such as the London ICA, where JAMC’s 20-minute sets lathered up the punters, who took to hurtling bottles and chairs. The former is surely the most outrageous Syd Barrett cover in existence, a screaming two-word mantra atop a through-composed feedback barrage; the latter is an even more degenerate version of same. Whimsy. The Reid brothers also got a kick out of breaking into studios and rendering the mixes as volume-saturated as possible, but that was just a phase; with the start of disc two, they’re in druggy Darklands ballad mode. The “Happy When It Rains” demo is positively crystalline, a Glaswegian cityscape shot through with some Emersonian musings. These guys started riots?
Still, it’s not like JAMC was ever predictable, as their taste in covers suggests: In songs by Leonard Cohen, Shane MacGowan, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Jerry Reed, the band is a merciless rhythmic machine, terrible in its unwavering precision, like the soul had fallen out of the monster. Their take on “Little Red Rooster,” from 1993’s The Sound of Speed EP, is mad, futuristic music, chrome-plated blues that’s as far away from the Rolling Stones’ cover of the Howlin’ Wolf standard as you can get. Which is perfectly logical, given how the band viewed precedents—even the ones they set themselves—as reminders that anything already done properly wasn’t worth ever doing again.