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Brian Jonestown Massacre – Thank God For Mental Illness (1996)

October 3, 2011

picture - brian jonestown massacre thank god for mental illnessRoll: 1-5-17
Album: Brian Jonestown Massacre, Thank God For Mental Illness

The Brian Jonestown Massacre walks a tightrope between homage and musical parody—the band name alone is an example of this balancing act. Anton Newcombe may actually intend his songs to be jokes, but if so they’re, thankfully, just a little too deadpan to be funny.

Still, Thank God For Mental Illness could have been used as the soundtrack to a mockumentary about a late ’60s folk rock band. Something like Spinal Tap meets A Mighty Wind. A case could probably be made that Dig!, the documentary about Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, was that film.

It’s difficult to draw a line between Newcombe reverently invoking the ghosts of the ’60s and taking the piss out of them. And you actually get the sense the line might not exist for him. Which could be why, despite the tongue-and-cheekiness of his lyrics, Mental Illness sounds so authentic. Besides, one could argue all the main influences here—Bob Dylan, The Stones, Donovan and The Beatles—were all pop-culture jokers seeing how far they could push the gag before people realized their favourite bands were having them on.

Of course those bands didn’t really treat what they were doing as a joke and you can hear neither does Newcombe. It’s clear the irreverence in his music stems from a reverent love of albums like Their Satanic Majesties Request, Younger Than Yesterday and Bringing It All Back Home. Plus what he’s created isn’t just a collection of carbon copies, there’s still something unique an original going on. It’s almost as if he actually believes he’s a contemporary of Brain Jones era Stones or CSNY, somehow lost in time.

At worst the music on Mental Illness comes off a bit like The Monkees’ most cynical emulations of their supposedly more “legitimate” peers. Seeing as how The Monkees were always a little unfairly maligned for this—it’s not as if The Small Faces and The Pretty Things weren’t doing exactly the same thing— that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The record also sounds like it was recorded 25 years earlier than it was. There’s the raw, rushed feeling a lot of those old sessions had. Especially on records by smaller bands who didn’t have the kind of label support to get everything just right someone like the Beatles had.

Where the record fails is songwriting sounds a little rushed. There’s some decent tunes here (“It Girl”, “13”, “Down”, ‘Cause I Love Her”), but no would-be classics. If BJM had been contemporary in 1967 it’s more than likely we’d never have heard of them except on psychedelic obscurities compilations. Taking a little more time crafting the album might have done the trick.  Mental Illness was no less than the third album BJM released in 1996 (along with Take It from the Man! and Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request) and it’s hard not to feel that between the three discs there’s one solid album.

But then, it wouldn’t be The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Part of the appeal of the band is the sprawling mess of material and the ramshackle, off-the-cuff immediacy of their recordings. There’s something charming about the way Newcombe seems to purposely shoot himself in the foot at every turn. It’s what prevents his music from being a weak homage or stale parody.

Like the classic albums by his heroes, there’s always something compellingly “off” about a BJM record.

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