Dig! Revisited: Comparing New Material From The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre

Music Features The Dandy Warhols
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Brian Jonestown Massacre
‘a’ Records

The Dandy Warhols
This Machine
The End

Back in 2004, controversial documentary Dig! captured the friendship, fallout and seemingly bitter rivalry between Portland, Ore.’s Dandy Warhols and San Francisco’s Brian Jonestown Massacre, launching the two relatively underground bands into the spotlight when the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Though Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor cooperated with filmmaker Ondi Timoner at the time, lending pot-stirring voiceover narration to the doc’s opening sequence, the two groups claimed in hindsight that the film was grossly manipulated to sensationalize the tension between them, especially in regards to the relationship between Taylor-Taylor and eccentric BJM frontman Anton Newcombe. While it’s impossible to know for sure how things really went down without having been a fly on the wall during filming, one can only assume the truth lies somewhere between Timoner’s and the artists’ version of events.

Part of the central tension of Dig! was the Dandy Warhols’ decision to sign with major label Capitol while Newcombe and BJM held true to their independent ethos but began to rapidly untether. Now, eight years later, with the events of Dig! more than a decade in the rearview, both bands have just released new records within a week of each other. This Machine (out on Brooklyn’s The End Records) finds the Dandy Warhols back in the indie game with their longtime lineup still intact, while BJM’s Aufheben (out on Newcombe’s own ‘a’ Records) features only two of the band’s original members, Newcombe and guitarist Matt Hollywood, plus Will Carruthers of Spacemen 3 and Spritualized, as well as a slew of other new contributors. It’s not a huge surprise, as BJM was always more Newcombe’s brainchild than a proper band like Dandy Warhols.

Aufheben begins majestically with “Panic in Babylon,” essentially Beatles psych-rock classic “Tomorrow Never Knows” re-imagined as a trippy international-dance-party anthem for the clubs in Ibiza. It’s a nice table-setter for this layered, hypnotic record, which—though recorded in Newcombe’s current home of Berlin—borrows heavily from the sounds of warmer climes. Just like the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Brazilian Tropicalia always borrowed heavily from the British and American psychedelia of the 1960s (which in turn took many cues from traditional Eastern music). Now, Newcombe is picking up this melting pot of sound from the other side, after it’s been filtered through Brazil’s sweltering, danceable consciousness. Of a piece with this approach, the vocals are mostly buried and ethereal on Aufheben, as if sung in some strange, evocative new language.

While the songs on Aufheben are never as strong as those of BJM’s touchstones (The Beatles, The Kinks, the Stones, the Syd Barrett-helmed Pink Floyd), sonically, the treatments are spot-on, with Newcombe and company boldly updating the mid-to-late-’60s aesthetic for the 21st century.

The Dandies, on the other hand, were never quite so experimental as the Brian Jonestown Massacre, excelling more at warm, tightly constructed pop-rock nuggets brushed lightly with just enough psychedelic sonic flourishes to add an ingratiating edge. This Machine takes this formula, decants it like a full-bodied red and lets it breathe. Lead track “Sad Vacation,” with its subtly squalling (yet never fully erupting) feedback and hi-lo octave vocals sounds like Sonic Youth at its most accessible. On the first half of This Machine, propulsion is the key element, whether by smug, driving fuzz bass; precise, interlocking guitars; laserbeam synths or pulsing piston drums. Unfortunately, beginning with the Tom Waits-inflected electronic boneyard musings of “Well They’re Gone,” the record loses steam and becomes scattered, though there is still depth in its diversity. “Rest Your Head” is a modern mid-tempo ambient rock classic a la Viva Voce’s “Rose City,” and the shuffling, horn-heavy “16 Tons” tips its hat graciously to Morphine, but they both feel like they belong to a different record, perhaps even a different band. While the songs on the latter half of This Machine are solid as stand alones, they just don’t flow as spine-tinglingly seamless as the first four, weakening an otherwise excellent record’s collective impact.