Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Black Tambourine
2010, Slumberland Records
9 out of 10

In the early-to-mid 1990's, there was a whole lot of underground and independent rock skipping across that great pond known as the Atlantic Ocean. Europe had Sarah Records, The Pastels and that darling C86 compilation cassette. In the States, we had Slumberland Records, Black Tambourine and homemade mixtapes.

My exposure to Black Tambourine's music was through a co-worker named Rose Melberg. We both worked at a cafe in Sacramento named New Helvetia way back there in 1993-land. I had horrible taste in music then, having fallen-off my Dinosaur Jr-appreciating wagon in order to allow the punishing sounds of industrial and goth to wipe their feet on my imagination (what a mess!) Rose, I quickly found-out, had just dissolved her band, Tiger Trap, and was setting course for a solo career with the help of Slumberland Records (I still have the flexi disc Rose gave me which featured her on one side, the The Magpies on the other, and the black-and-white cover art of Adriane Tomine which she and co-worker/friend Emily Elders had taken turns coloring-in with crayons).

Taking note of my lowered appreciation in music ("That stuff is really depressing and cheesy." Rose told me when I showed-up to work one day in a Godflesh t-shirt), she made me a cassette featuring The Ne're-Do-Wells on one side and Black Tambourine on the other (recorded from 7" singles, no less!) Needless to say, it was a transformative musical experience. While I had been wallowing-away in the defeatist schlock of music that wasn't really doing it for me (that new music kick I was looking for was more of a dull, unrelenting thud, really), the homemade dream-pop of Black Tambourine was what I had really been searching for, but didn't know where to look.

Thanks to this band, I later discovered and/or sought-out bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Lilys, Pavement, Guided By Voices, Thee Headcoats, The Pastels, The Mummies, Flake Music (who later changed their name to The Shins and wrote a song titled "Pam Berry," no less), and countless other lo-fi bedroom rockers making two minute micro-symphonies for penniless, skinny white kids to enjoy. I suspect Black Tambourine had the same influence on a number of other people, too, considering the bands (then and now) that cite Pam Berry and Co. as an influence (Whorl, Veronica Lake, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Vivian Girls, etc.)

I never owned any of Black Tambourine's 7" releases or the many compilation records they appeared on (save for the One Last Kiss comp on Spin Art Records). It wasn't until I finally wore-out the tape Rose made for me that I broke-down and purchased the 10" 10-song The Complete Recordings compilation Slumberland released years later. I played The Complete Recordings so much, I soon found that I was in danger of wearing-out the vinyl version as well.

Given Slumberland's recent revival (did this wonderful record label ever really go away?), it seems fitting that they would release this Black Tambourine collection with new songs tacked onto it. The results? Wonderful, of course. Seeing as how Black Tambourine's original songs are pretty damned fantastic to begin with, how could one really find any fault with the additional material that this collection provides?

I'm not sure if Black Tambourine invented the art of grafting shoegaze to doo-wop and merging that with raw, vulnerable, feedback-drenched noise pop, or if the band simply perfected it, but the 10 "original" tracks on this new collection are as accessible and dreamy as they were 10 years ago. "Black Car" still shimmers with Berry's hazy, longing vocals echoing against those heavy, weaving and bobbing bass lines. Ditto the Lush-esque "Pack You Up" and baroque "Drown" (if anything, this band could be held accountable for inspiring "air bass playing" in its listeners). No other band who has done a cover of any one of Love's songs has been able to attack them with the required verve and vigor the way Black Tambourine does with "Can't Explain." "Throw Aggie Off the Bridge" still resonates as the band's signature single, despite possibly still giving Stephen Pastel indigestion.

Of that bonus material are two "first demo" versions of "For Ex-Lovers Only" and "Black Car" recorded by the Lilys' Kurt Heasley, and four brand new songs; "Tears of Joy," "Lazy Heart," and covers of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" and Buddy Holly's "Heartbeat" (influences, damn!) Though this new material sounds a bit more polished than that of the songs recorded in the 1990's, Black Tambourine's twee-pop blitz is still as cuddly, kinetic and charming as ever.

As this collection illustrates, Black Tambourine made the kind of hazy, lo-fi music anybody could make, everybody tried to imitate and nobody could duplicate. That's the stuff of legend.

Lo-fi legend, that is.

Thanks again, Rose!


  1. Jesus dude. I don't know how liking industrial and goth music accounts as "bad/cheesy", and how liking Dinosaur and Black Tambourine counts as "better". Just because one kind of music appears in 'fake-indie' movies a la 500 Days of Summer and Pitchfork rams it down the 'indie' set's throats doesn't make that type of music inherently better than every other kind of rock music around. It's funny that you mention Godflesh, 'cause JK Broadrick (the principal Godflesh songwriter) has been making better 'indie pop' music as Jesu than all the shitty Black Tambourine ripoff bands I'm sure you consider inherently better combined. I guess it's all subjective but you should be careful about slagging off genres like that, a good "goth/industrial" song (a la Cure and Swans) probably has more inherent songwriting (melody, arrangements, etc.) to it than a shitty lo-fi girl group ripoff that gets a pass just 'cause it's 'hip' and 'cool' to like it. Sorry. Butthurt Godflesh fan who didn't like the condescending tone of your article speaking, I guess.

  2. Who says Tony has to like Goth/Industrial? Interesting you reference the Cure, while in 20 years I've never known Tony to play a Cure record, it would be very easy to find a poppy cure song that wasn't even goth, in fact, I don't even consider them Gothic, the idea of asking Tony to pick a London After Midnight song he likes, now that would be an awesome game. Which is just it, some people honestly do not like certain genres of music. But I guess you are the music police who's got his poison pen ready for anyone who doesn't like Spahn Ranch. In fact, from your post I would infer that you do not like indie pop both by your much more scathing stance than Tony's RE Goth, and the fact that you think Jesu, a boring grunge band, is indie pop.

  3. Hey Victor,

    I appreciate your inferring that I, a lowly record collector and reviewer, has the final say on what constitutes "good" and "bad" taste in music for everyone, including you. I must decline your assertion, however. I was simply stating that in my opinion - for MY appreciation in music (and MY subsequent collecting thereof) - that I find goth and industrial music to be cheesy and boring... for MY music tastes and record collection. Let me add that I find both genres cynical and wallowing, as well. If this is the music YOU like, well then, Bob's your Uncle. Maybe reading a blog more in keeping with your music tastes would work out much better for you.

    Now, I've yet to see 500 Days of Summer, but regardless, I still find independent, underground music to my liking. You may disagree (in fact you have!) Good for you. But I will "slag off" whatever genre of music (and anything else I find disagreeable) however I see fit. I'm sorry if my slight to your favorite genre of music hurts your feelings, but considering you did so above of a band and genre I hold near and dear to my heart, well then, I suppose the pettiness that goes around comes around. Right?

    I will contend that a band like, say, Sebadoh, writes much better that Swans. In my opinion, anyway. I mean, I'd much rather listen to a crying infant for 2 hours than the drudging ear torture that comprises Swans musical output. Again, just my opinion. Yours may differ.

    I will say, however, that contrary to my best friend's opinion, I do own and enjoy several albums by The Cure. "Friday I'm in Love", "Fascination Street" and "Just Like Heaven" (covered by Dinosaur Jr, no less!) are great pop songs. Really cheery stuff that puts a smile on my face every time I listen to 'em.

    Lastly, I find it ironic that you mention JK Broadrick and his new band, Jesu. Pretty mellow stuff, coming from the same fellow who penned "Burning, No desire, No friends, Inside my mind" from the delightful ditty Someone Somewhere Scorned, and all. Of course, that song was written more than 15 years ago now. Looks like Broadrick has branched-out, moved on and pens some (GASP!) fairly folk-oriented songs now. Maybe he got sick of writing those depressing dirges. Who knows?

    I do know this, however: I DO have better taste in music than you do, Victor. I mean, Swans!?! C'mon!