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The Boston Phoenix Munki Business

The Jesus and Mary Chain rock on

By Matt Ashare

JULY 13, 1998:  The new album by the Jesus and Mary Chain, Munki (Sub Pop), opens with a tune titled "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and closes with one titled "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll." The first, written by singer Jim Reid, amounts to a renewed declaration of purpose from a band who, despite having spent the better part of the past decade and a half cultivating a too-cool-to-care attitude, have never been able to disguise their genuine affection for rock and roll. Behind those Lou Reed shades, Jim and his guitar-playing brother William were always gazing lovingly toward the past, their eyes fixed on the Velvet Underground, not to mention the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, the 13th Floor Elevators -- the list goes on. And if the corrosive clouds of white noise raining acid over the cotton-candy chords (all three of them) of the Chain's groundbreaking 1985 debut, Psychocandy, seemed an act of pure spite at the time, well, just remember, sometimes we lash out at what we love most.

Which is why "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll," a tune originally penned by William Reid as the title track to the band's 1995 rarities compilation The Jesus and Mary Chain Hate Rock 'n' Roll (American), is the real love song on Munki. "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" is the come-on, with Jim acting as earnest as he's ever let himself get as he testifies "I'm not preaching or making a case/I'm not trying to make the world a better place" against the hum and surge of cranked-up guitars on his way to the altar, where he'll proclaim, "I love what I'm doing." But it's not until the end of the 17-song disc, when the lyrics turn a bit nasty ("I love BBC/I love it when they're pissing on me/And I love MTV/I love it when they're shitting on me"), that the relationship is truly consummated, as William fucks with the form, kicking the distortion level up another couple notches and buries his primal lead in a pile of fuzztone rhythm guitar and feedback. Now that's love. And when the song was first released, back in 1995, it seemed Jim and William were saying that they loved rock and roll too much to go on playing it in a world where everybody suddenly had his amp set on 11.

Well, the Mary Chain didn't throw in the towel. They just parted ways with Warner Bros. and, implicitly, with their dream of ever being a Beatles or a Stones. Instead, they've accepted a place in the indie-rock hall of fame by signing with Sub Pop and Creation (the UK equivalent of a Sub Pop, Matador, or Touch & Go) and settling in as what they were always best cut out to be -- a Velvet Underground. "All I really need is Sister Ray," Jim coyly reminds himself on "Stardust Remedy." It's a textbook J&M Chain song, with its churning guitars punching new life into a chord progression you know you've heard a dozen times before but wouldn't mind hearing at least a dozen more times because it's just so right, and lyrics that drop at least three other overt VU references, including a line lifted from "I'm Set Free" and the words "velvet underground." Later, the boys turn the microphone over to their sister Linda (rechristened "Sister Vanilla" for the occasion) for an "After Hours"-y tune titled "Moe Tucker." Subtlety has never been of great concern to the Brothers Reid.

Jim, the Chain's usual spokesperson, bypasses the Velvet Underground and latches onto Nick Cave as an example of what he'd like the band to become. "I wanna be like Nick Cave . . . he does what he wants and you either accept him as he is or you fuck off. . . . That's what I'd like for us." Which is not to imply that Reid regrets any of the more commercial directions the Jesus and Mary Chain have explored over the years. "I stand by everything that we've done," he offers over the phone from his home in England. "I think about all the records we've made and I can still remember why we made each one of them, so I certainly wouldn't apologize for anything we've done."

If Reid has misgivings, they center on the usual frictions that exist between artistic ambitions and the necessities of commerce. "We love music and we love what we're doing, but we aren't businessmen. We hate the business end of what we're forced to deal with, but we have to remind ourselves that what we do is incredibly good fun and that being able do it is quite a privilege."

And ultimately, that's what Munki is -- the sound of a band reminding themselves that all you really need is "Sister Ray," that to hate rock and roll is to love it and vice versa. There's nothing new on Munki. In fact, from the distorted techno-pop of "Virtually Unreal" to the scuzz rock of "Degenerate" to the seven-minute garage psychedelia of "Commercial" to the Hope Sandoval cameo on "Perfume," this is all ground the Jesus and Mary Chain have covered before. It's just good to know they're still enjoying the ride.


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