Black Tambourine OneTwoThreeFour [EP]

[Slumberland; 2012]

Styles: noise pop, shoegaze, twee pop, post-punk-non-punk
Others: Tiger Trap, Beat Happening, Vivian Girls, Girls, Dum Dum Girls, Velocity Girl

These days, everybody seems to be getting back together. Whether it’s something in the air, this current generation’s infatuation with yesteryear (late 80s/early 90s reboot, now with less Skidz), current project purgatory, reconciliation of feuding members, or boredom, there is little to indicate exactly why everyone is giving their old projects a second (or third) go. Maybe it’s for money; maybe it’s a way to reinsert their place in history — the case varies from band to band.

None of these reasons really fit the recent Black Tambourine reunion and recording of OneTwoThreeFour, a four-song double 7-inch of Ramones covers. All members of the band have tended to downplay their role in both noise pop’s and twee pop’s history. They played very few shows during their first time as a band and made very few recordings. They called it quits rather ambivalently and unremarkably. Yet despite all this, they’ve been cited as an influence by bands like Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and The Crystal Stilts. They’ve been placed by critics into twee pop’s canon alongside Tiger Trap and Beat Happening. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart absorbed their twee-est aspects so densely that it garnered them a spot on Black Tambourine member Mike Schulman’s label (Slumberland) and a mixdown on their first record from another Tambouriner, Archie Moore. Black Tambourine’s sound, a furious wall of noise juxtaposing the sweetest of pop sentiments (made indelibly so by vocalists Pam Berry’s reverb-y, sweetly-buried vocals), as well as their blend of influences, clicked into later consciousnesses. Still, there’s been much reluctance for any member to either admit this or embrace their historical place. As guitarist Brian Nelson (who also played in DC bands Velocity Girl and Whorl during that early-90s timeframe) said in an interview:

It’s very flattering to think that we are — at least in the conscious of the critics, if not the bands — part of the stepping stones along the way. Although I definitely think that a lot of those bands are more influenced by the same people we were, rather than by Black Tambourine. We share the same aesthetic. I don’t necessarily think that we were some pivotal group…

Although the above could be accurate (as it’s obvious that Dum Dum Girls are as enamored with girl-group doo-wop as Black Tambourine were), the members of Black Tambourine seem to downplay what exactly influenced these bands. One of Black Tambourine’s most remarkable abilities was how they channeled their influences. Their songs can be easily picked apart for their love of The Jesus and Mary Chain, the C86 set, the early Motown thread, and a band they shared with their D.C. punk counterparts (to separating degrees): The Ramones.

So what is there to add to this Black Tambourine growth with their semi-reunion OneTwoThreeFour some 20 years later after the band called it quits? Not much other than to restate why people find this band so incredible. Their sound is much more unique than the respective bands that other Black Tambourine members were involved in, a combination of what was the poppy-ness of Velocity Girl and the noise wall of Whorl. Their signifying sound translates the songs and spirit of The Ramones better than any dogmatic punk rendition could. Not only that, but they specifically picked the love songs out of The Ramones’ early catalog, which makes more sense considering where they’ve been critically placed. “I Want You Around” is bombast, but still a love song, and works much better than something like “Beat On The Brat” or “Pet Cemetery” would.

Maybe one could say the same of The Ramones that Black Tambourine seem to consider of themselves: that their influence extended more out of the influences that made The Ramones than The Ramones themselves. But that would be silly, like saying that the guitar influenced music more than the people who played it, understating the importance of execution. It’s a combination of Black Tambourine’s sound and ability to present what they liked about their influences that makes their own influence so ubiquitous in the modern garage/psych/noise pop/whatever scene, as well as what makes us critical folk so keen to draw Black Tambourine in the same circle as other twee formulators.

OneTwoThreeFour is not necessarily an indication that the band intends to reunite and make a giant ordeal of their reunion, but it does show that all four former members were at least willing to put their energy back into creating the record and playing a few shows for some friends and super-fans. (The album coincides with some shows Black Tambourine recently played (funding their airfare to bring Berry from London and Schulman from L.A. to play their shows in D.C. and NYC with a Kickstarter page) as a 20-year celebration for chickfactor magazine, which was co-founded by Berry.) The album holds to the unambitious qualities deemed upon indie pop and twee pop, exploring no new territory while doing just enough to make it sound like themselves. It’s an incredible feat that the band was able to come together and sound like this after not playing for 20-some years, not to also restate that this was a band that didn’t dedicate themselves to practice during their heyday. The addition of backup harmonies from Dee Dee (Kristin Gundred) from Dum Dum Girls, Jenny Robins from Honeymoon Diary, Linda Smith, and Rose Melberg of Tiger Trap (performing under the chorus moniker The ’Rinettes) pushes the Shangri-Las influence only so high, keeping themselves buried underneath Berry’s distinctive vocals.

Basically, there’s nothing new going on here, but that would be an awfully large and somewhat unreasonable demand to expect from a band 20 years out. It’s enough having what they’ve given; in both their own vein and in line with The Ramones, the songs are noisy, loud, pop-driven, and short; it will probably take you longer to read this review than it would to listen to all of OneTwoThreeFour. While it’s hard to critically asses an album that was more or less made for fans and close friends, it provides a great opportunity to talk about a band formed on reluctance that didn’t bother trying to be more than something else to do. If anything, Black Tambourine provides a great case for the importance of documenting. OneTwoThreeFour doesn’t exist as a part of the band’s previous history, and as I stated above, it definitely doesn’t sound like an attempt by the band to create a new one. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe there will be some form of reunion some time off. I would be happy to see them play, as I’ve been happy to see a couple of reunited bands play excellent shows within the last couple years. But even with OneTwoThreeFour being as great-sounding as it is, I would be okay to have only what Black Tambourine left us. Their career is just like that of any great pop song: short, incredibly sweet, and masterful at creating the desire for more.

Links: Black Tambourine - Slumberland

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