Psychocandy - 5 stars
Darklands - 4 stars
Automatic - 3.5 stars
Honey's Dead - 3.5 stars
Stoned & Dethroned - 3.5 stars
A welcome reminder of the virtues of one of modern alt rock’s unassuming lynchpins
The Jesus and Mary Chain is, without a doubt, one of rock’s most significant but undersung “bridge” bands.
Hailing from Scotland (which—if you consider groups like Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Josef K, the Cocteau Twins and maybe even Big Country—had an astoundingly high national batting average during the ’80s when it came to arty bands with a pop edge), JAMC straddled worlds.
Marrying dissonant squalls and druggy atmospherics with classicist pop sensibilities and plangent ersatz-Britpop guitar lines, JAMC were the natural midpoint between The Sex Pistols and Modern English, and their influence rings clear not only in fellow countrymen Mogwai and Teenage Fanclub, but also (as many have noted) My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. Like The Velvet Underground before them (whose influence admittedly dripped from JAMC’s music), historical importance has come to JAMC even if the band never reaped great recognition during its run. After falling criminally out-of-print in some cases, JAMC’s first five full-lengths have recently been reissued by Rhino on DualDisc, with each re-release featuring three bonus videos.
Particularly welcomed will be the band’s legendary 1985 debut, Psychocandy. One-time drummer (and later Primal Scream principal) Bobby Gillespie’s initial drumbeats on the opener “Just Like Honey” hang in splendor just like the opening beats of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and the Wall of Sound in this case is quite literal—a searing force field of feedback that traps otherwise plaintive pop songs like butterflies under scratched glass. All dull yearning and alienation, Psychocandy rings as strong as it did upon its initial release.
While Psychocandy inevitably glistens as the most distinctive of the lot, part of JAMC’s glory is that they were keen enough to take Psychocandy for what it was—a singular, galvanizing statement born of a moment in time—and resist the temptation to dilute its power by making it too much of a sonic franchise. While critics fixated on Darklands’ lack of feedback, for instance, it was probably this very decision on Darklands that preserved the impact of its predecessor.
Time has proven Darklands itself to be underrated. Across its modest 10 songs the now-increasingly-shared vocal performances of brothers Jim and William Reid gained a smoothness and warmth not always captured in the group’s more overt Lou Reedisms, while songs like “Cherry Came Too” elevate gorgeous guitar work to the status of a major plot point. Meanwhile, “April Skies” laid the rumbling-rocker template JAMC would ride into the sunset on later albums.
Engineered by Alan Moulder, Automatic sounds like the ?rst JAMC album consciously made for radio. While standout classic “Head On” was bliss right out of the box (a fact acknowledged by the Pixies, who treated it to a fairly literal cover within two scant years of its release), and “Halfway to Crazy” had a tasty power-pop sheen, the in-your-heavily-made-up-face drum machines of “UV Ray,” “Sunray” and “Take It” come off as dated, particularly when compared to more committed dance-rock contemporaries like Depeche Mode. Despite its many great guitar moments, Automatic struggles perhaps just a bit too hard to hang with the rave-rock scene that had by then begun its ascent.
Honey’s Dead grapples with some of the same stylistic demons (with a few cuts that were ironically very Primal Scream) but also includes some inspired curios, like the “Mr. Tambourine Man” cop in “Rollercoaster,” and the stripped-down “Frequency,” which reprises centerpiece “Reverence” by way of a trip back to the Velvets (by way of a clearly intentional Modern Lovers cop).
By the time 1994’s Stoned & Dethroned comes around, some of the edge is gone, but frequently the vibe is elegant and inviting. Featuring the JAMC’s ?rst guests (Mazzy Star’s incredible Hope Sandoval on “Sometimes Always” and The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan on “God Help Me”), Stoned has a relaxed open-road ramble to it (accidental alt.country?) that thoughtfully contrasts the tight drive and clipped beats of previous albums. It’s a bit front-loaded (and increasingly same-sounding as you get through it), but it was certainly a bold left turn to cap the band’s stint with Warner.
Following one official Sub Pop album and the fatal defection of William Reid, JAMC was gone.
But these reissues go a fair way toward easing the pain, even if the new packaging doesn’t merit replacing your well-worn copies if you’ve already got them. The bonus video tracks are modest but occasionally intriguing, and roughly paraphrase JAMC’s evolution. The videos on Psychocandy, for instance, are concertedly sluggish, with slow-motion camera pans lingering across barely moving band members—the video analog to the mop-haired Scots’ early sets, where they’d stand in the stage shadows with their backs to the crowd, blast feedback for 20 minutes, and disappear again into the ether. By the time “Come On” rolls around on Stoned & Dethroned, there are campy half-baked visual jokes (including a random muscleman in a toga—don’t ask me why) and the whiff of record-label interference. In between are various sketches with middling production values—usually either ?ashing images or blandly backdropped pseudo-live shots, all of which are made in?nitely more exciting by association with the music; its beats never fail to saturate even the spottier videography and imbue it with extra life, a ?tting if backhanded tribute to a band most deserving of a critical and commercial renaissance.