Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Baby 81 (RCA, 2007)

The first two Black Rebel Motorcycle Club albums combined layers of feedback-drenched guitar tracks with the sonic brazenness of The Jesus and Mary Chain, spawning a couple of solid hard rockers apiece. The band did an about-face for their 2005 CD Howl, going on a mostly acoustic bluesy kick. Despite the shift in direction, Howl was every bit as strong as its predecessors. I approached their fourth album Baby 81 confident that I'd hear some quality output, but not really sure sonically what to expect. What I got is an album that builds on the band's already strong foundation, returning to the hard rock base but with added depth and an exciting amount of vitality.

Baby 81 clearly sounds more like the first two BRMC albums than the third, but there are definitely some differences. The arrangements are a bit more scaled back, with Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been focusing less on layering guitar tracks and more on producing a rawer, more live sound. In general the distortion is turned way up, but not to the point where things get messy. Hayes and Been do whip out the acoustic guitars on a couple of tracks, but even there they're setting up hard-edged songs, like the phenomenal blistering single "Weapon of Choice." They also expand the range of their vocals, using a John Lennon-inspired icy falsetto on a few songs. Drummer Nick Jago adds a few new tricks of his own, bringing in a more groove-oriented style reminiscent of some of Franz Ferdinand's music. The result is some furious, down-and-dirty rock and roll that still manages to be melodic and accessible. Besides "Weapon of Choice," other solid tracks are "Not What You Wanted" and "Lien on Your Dreams." But even the rest of the album maintains a great dark, aggressive feel to it.

I've been following Black Rebel Motorcycle Club since I heard "Love Burns" off of their debut CD, and I'm happy to say that they're a band that keeps getting better. Baby 81 is as essential a rock album as I've heard yet this year, and comes very highly recommended.

Overall grade: A

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