The Brian Jonestown Massacre Thank God For Mental Illness

[Bomp; 1996]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: garage, folk, psych, rock
Others: Rolling Stones, Syd Barrett

Ondi Timoner's recent documentary Dig! has been both a blessing and a curse for the Brian Jonestown Massacre. From one perspective, it can be considered beneficial ”” it gave the band's music the publicity of which their earlier work was unfortunately starved, and put them one step closer to attaining their rightful place in the rock'n'roll canon. From the other, it can be considered detrimental: it showed little to none of the group's successes, and led the viewer to believe that frontman Anton Newcombe either ended up rotting in jail or too strung out to function as a member of society, an editing trick which he publicly condemned on the band's official website immediately after the film's release. Perhaps worst of all, the group was given an albatross to carry ”” which goes by the name ‘The Dandy Warhols' ”” Kidding. Sort of.

Mental Illness shows a portrait of a band in the midst of their creative peak (which arguably spanned several albums), at a time when the songs just seemed to create themselves. According to Dig!, most of the band's recorded work from this period was done as follows: a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rep from an upstart record company would hear the band, feel very enthusiastic about the sound, and (against better judgement) would pull some strings and get the band a week or so of studio time. During that week, the group would virtually camp out in the studio and in that short amount of time, somehow manage to record an entire album. This album was that formula on steroids: legend has it that this entire album was recorded in one day, for under $20. Perhaps this factor contributed to what turned out to be one of the band's greatest strengths; that is, their ability to simply create the music, without ever taking a self-conscious pause to question whether more bells and whistles here or there would make the album more appealing. This album came during the middle of a time when the band put out six albums in four short years. The antithesis of Sean Lennon's recording style, so to speak, but for this group, any other way just wouldn't seem right.

Listening to this album is like sharing a joint with John Wayne and the Dalai Lama as the three of you sit around a campfire on a California beach on a starry summer evening, laughing, talking, and sharing stories. John Wayne tells of high-noon gunfights in various towns of the old west, how he took down a corrupt sheriff and kissed all the pretty girls before finally riding out into the sun. The Dalai Lama preaches the need for universal understanding and peace, and how you can get a greater thrill from simple meditation than from 100 consecutive roller-coaster rides in the Mall of America, if only you'll open your mind to it. And there you are, shyly confiding that you have a big, fat crush on that girl that works at the coffee shop you go to every morning, but you just can't think of the first thing to say to her to break the ice. Then you lie down on the sand and fall asleep counting the dots in the sky, in awe of the fact that the light you are seeing left its mother star hundreds of millions of years ago as an anonymous photon, and travelled all this way just so you could see it. The opening track, ‘Spanish Bee' is a playfully dramatic number that eases nicely into the rest of the album. One of the funniest tracks comes in the form of "13," in which the singer proposes to the woman of his dreams, all the while pleading "I know you're only 13 honey/ But I hope you'll understand." Much could be said of other tracks such as "The Ballad of Jim Jones," "Free and Easy," "Stars," or any other ”” but one would do better to listen to them than to read about them. The album ends with a 33 minute medley, which is really several songs played consecutively, but technically in a single track; a real pain in the ass when you're trying to make a mix tape, but no hard feelings.

Mental Illness proves once again that the only thing necessary to make a great rock album is that spark ”” that spontaneous, effortless charm which is impossible to duplicate, no matter how many producers or professional musicians one brings into the studio.

1. Spanish Bee
2. It Girl
3. 13
4. Ballad Of Jim Jones
5. Those Memories
6. Stars
7. Free And Easy, Take 2
8. Down
9. Cause I Love Her
10. Too Crazy To Care
11. Talk-Action=Shit
12. True Love
13. Sound Of Confusion