Brightblack Morning Light

Motion to Rejoin

(Matador; 2008)

By Joel Elliott | 29 September 2008

The criticisms leveled against Brightblack Morning Light are so obvious that they seem almost underhanded: yes, Nabob Shineywater and Rachael Hughes create ridiculous myths about themselves; yes, they’re obsessed with crystals and rainbows and every new age/hippie cliche out there; yes, they only play one speed and it’s really really slow. Every review seems to start with the backstory, mention offhand the band’s extraordinary ability to incorporate soul and blues into a gorgeous syrupy drone, then attach a 3/5 or something as if they’re obliged as perceptive critics to dock marks due to all the bullshit.

It kind of reeks of bullshit itself, especially with a healthy amount of laudatory reviews floating around recently of That Lucky Old Sun. Critics have always forgiven superficialities, particularly lyrically, when it’s employed in an acknowledged genre or with the right degree of irony/sincerity. It’s telling that we live in a time where a group like the Pipettes can exist without anyone questioning (or even addressing) their musical value. Likewise, no-one who sets out to dismiss Brightblack Morning Light does so on the grounds of their musical precedents, probably because they embrace these influences in a sophisticated, albeit naive, way. They don’t sound like they’re trying to recreate music from the ’60s so much as capture its spirit in a resolutely contemporary framework. But this is also why they get so much flak—unlike the Pipettes, the band isn’t being coy, and thus they lose points on that critic-proof scale of “self-awareness.” I’m not much of a fan of Mercury Rev’s recent work but I can still acknowledge that they’re working entirely on their own terms and I agree with David Abravanel that they, like Brightblack, are “sadly often mistaken for pap and drivel in this hotly cynical world.”

So I can accept the criticisms, but let’s face it: it comes down to the fact that neither Brightblack Morning Light nor Mercury Rev in their current incarnation are “cool.” And this has nothing to do with their music and everything to do with their lyrics, since the whole branding of either band as “hippies” has nothing to do with the cultural/musical origins of the word so much as the stereotypes associated with the current trendy, idealistic youth. Because as much as hippies pay lip service to the ’60s, bands like Sublime and Ben Harper are so hopelessly trapped in their era they’ll be genuine artifacts in 10 years if they’re not already.

When Brightblack’s self-titled album came out in 2006 it was refreshing because they sounded like what every patchouli-drenched jam band could sound like if they embraced current recording magic (the band doesn’t have an ounce of lo-fi in them). They were, and are, an oddity: a band whose lifestyle habits—even apart from the obvious basic instrumentation = rustic sincerity equation—beg practical considerations. Like, how did they find enough sunlight to record using only solar power and still manage a follow-up in two years and still sound sumptuously produced? Does the Rhodes come camping with them? At what point did they consider that Matador would be the most appropriate record label for them? How does a band go from shoegazing (Shineywater’s My Bloody Valentine-disciple past) to stargazing? And, on that note, how do you record an album so obviously nocturnal in the daytime?

Somehow even sleepier than their last album, Motion to Rejoin isn’t going to convert anybody, but it certainly expands both their soul/gospel/blues eclecticism and their quest to find a sound so gorgeous that it doesn’t need to go anywhere. Shineywater’s croon of “Rise up in the morning” on “Gathered Years” is the most undemanding call-to-arms ever recorded; that woozy trombone insisting on nothing, merely acknowledging the passing of time with coy amusement. Brightblack Morning Light might not sound anything like My Bloody Valentine on the surface, but they share the same narcotic haze where you suddenly lose track of what song you’re in the middle of.

Of course, their last album already nailed that specific sound and Motion to Rejoin doesn’t radically alter it, but it does move the band beyond the relatively simple blues riffs that previously structured their music into something more akin to soul and gospel. They never even fully embody these genres, though, with the distant and slightly-distorted Stax reeds that back “Oppressions Each” sounding more like the murky use of soul samples in a lot of ambient electronic music. Still, the spirit is there: the chorus’ “Nobody needs oppression,” like the quote of “A Change is Gonna Come” on “Another Reclaimation,” gives the album the feel of a classic soul-gospel crossover, where collective spiritual awakening meets collective political action. The band might still be associated with an opt-out mentality rather than anything directly political, but the title of the album isn’t a mistake: they might live off the grid, but at the very least they’re keeping in touch with what’s going on around them.

Apart from these few times when the band touches on musical history, lyrically there’s still the same ridiculous preoccupations: rugged, Midwestern imagery; new age-y spirituality; rather obvious weather-related metaphors. Still, the way these lyrics are almost completely obliterated by the dense music makes for an entirely different effect. The lyrics to “Hologram Buffalo” might look silly on paper, but when only the odd word or phrase is intelligible it becomes like a series of detached, dream-like images.

Then there’s “A Rainbow Aims,” probably the finest song on the album, and proof that the band can actually morph in interesting ways when they want to. It starts out typical enough, with the usual achingly-slow Rhodes and formless xylophone, and gradually adding Shineywater’s cavernous, reverb-drenched voice. Then about halfway through comes high-pitched horns that would be fanfare were it not for Hughes’ drone-y, lilting voice, then follows it with measured orchestral strings straight from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). It gives the whole track a light, paisley hue that compliments the murky earthen sounds that are the band’s usual fare. Likewise, “Past a Weatherbeaten Fencepost”, perhaps the closest the band will ever get to “rock” (ha!) reworks Sly & The Family Stone wah-guitar by cutting it up into blips and bloops; going miles to show just how laboured over these tracks are.

It’s possible that tracks like these are standouts simply because they’re diversions from a standard that, even this far in, is already well-established. I’m willing to accept, more than a lot of people, a full album of a single mood/pace. Less so when it comes to a second release, which is why I had lower expectations coming into this. Still, it does all that Brightblack Morning Light did plus more, which is a longshot from a disappointment. Whether or not their motion to rejoin gets turned down by the general populace is irrelevant; this band will always be making records solely on their own terms.