The third solo release from Brian Jonestown Massacre's beloved tambourine man reveals the songwriting chops beneath the corduroy cap.
I can’t decide whether Joel Gion has the best or the worst day job in the world. As the tambourine toting “Mutley” to Anton Newcombe’s “Dick Dastardly” in the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Gion has seen things that no percussionist should ever see. The BJM seem to be in a constant state of high agitation and about one bottle of beer away from killing each other, and anyone who’s ever seen the “Dig!” documentary (and if you haven’t, what the hell is more important in your life that watching it right now…?) will know that the word “volatile” could have been coined especially for them. Gion is the veritable eye of the storm, stopping fights, cracking jokes and rattling his tambourine while the rest of his bandmates scowl at each other and plot unspeakable acts of darkness. But on the plus side, on a good night (i.e. when the collateral damage is kept down to low, double figures), the BJM are an amazing, transcendental experience. We need to cut Gion some slack, because what he has to put up with on a daily basis would probably kill a lesser human being.
You may be surprised to find that Gion is no stranger to the world of the solo album. This is release number three, following “Extended Play” and “Apple Bonkers” onto his Wikipedia page. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “The jug player from the 13th Floor Elevators didn’t annoy us all by releasing some waste of vinyl, pseudo-psychedelic vanity project, so why should we care when Joel whatshisname from that band from that film about the Dandy Warhols, limps into a studio to make a record?” Because it’s pretty great, that’s why.
Bad news first. You’ll either love or hate his voice. Fans of Steve Perry, look away now, as he’s up there with Bobby Gillespie and Kurt Ralske from UltraVivid Scene in terms of vocal prowess. I like it. You may not. The good news is that considering Gion doesn’t contribute to the writing of anything in the BJM canon, there are some really great tunes here. And no, they’re not all reverb soaked, drone rock freakouts… there’s bossa nova, too. That’s right, you heard right, Joel is a big fan of bossa nova and tropicalia and on tracks like “Partner” and (especially) “Divide” he digs out his bongos, grabs the nearest flautist and gets seriously lounge-y. His dulcet tones sound especially good in this setting and if you close your eyes, you can visualise Hugh Hefner (RIP) tapping his toes in the background. Some tracks sound like you’d expect them to sound – “Zig Zag” is slow and trippy and “Mercury in Retrograde” could almost be a BJM tune – big barre chords, backwards lead guitar and a swirly production – familiar enough stuff to a BJM aficionado, but with Newcombe’s dark palette replaced by a more soft-focus approach. All nine tracks on “Joel Gion” hang together really well and it’s obvious that underneath his corduroy cap, Gion has the mind of a decent songwriter. Who knew?
The standout on the album is “Come to Light”. Built on a danceable rhythm track (kudos to the bassist, BTW) and beautifully embellished by tasteful flute and piano, the tune grooves away in a very appealing manner and if they ever remake “Our Man Flint” and this isn’t on the soundtrack, then someone needs to get fired. What the Brian Jonestown Massacre fanbase will make of “Joel Gion”, I really don’t know, but this record could blow an open mind.
“Joel Gion” may open the floodgates for all those guys in bands who have an “indeterminate” role. Expect albums from most of the members of The Polyphonic Spree, Bez from the Happy Mondays, and those guys in the cool uniforms who used to hang around with Public Enemy. If those albums are half as good as “Joel Gion”, you know what? They’ll be alright.