Those Fabulous '00s

The Comas and Brian Jonestown Massacre refract the past into the not-so-perfect future.

Anton Newcombe and Andy Herod are the same kind of critter. Not that you'd need a urine test to tell them apart; Brian Jonestown Massacre nucleus and frontman Newcombe has a few years on his Comas counterpart, not to mention eight albums, at least a couple dozen more ex-sidepeople, and a history of tantrums and onstage brawling chronicled by a devoted cult long before Dig!, Ondi Timoner's widely lauded 2004 documentary, simply put the "tortured genius or psychotic weenieburger?" question to a wider audience than all of BJM's efforts combined. Newcombe— despite the badly needed shot in the arm—repudiates Dig! on the band's Web site, calling it "Jerry Springer–esque."

You'd think that if he were all that concerned about public perception of bygone excesses, he'd have asked the compilers of the double-disc retrospective Tepid Peppermint Wonderland (Tee Pee) to use an opener other than "All Around You (Intro)." The plodding Beatles/Stones fusion tribute served its purpose well enough on 1996's Their Satanic Majesties Second Request, immediately proving the budding pastiche king's prowess at predicting the past to hundreds of record-store clerks for whom the only thing better than an English accent was a fake one. Here, the song merely reminds us that Newcombe's Tragical Misery Tour boat has always held too much baggage to carry the band beyond its influences.

The Comas' Conductor (Yep Roc) begins similarly, with Herod swathing "Science of Your Mind" in the distant, droning vibe of the Stones' "2000 Light Years From Home." But as with the rest of the North Carolina band's album-length rumination on his breakup with Dawson's Creek actress Michelle Williams, the bitter farewell simply steals from yesterday to feed now, drowning '60s cliché in surreal synth and guitar. "Science"'s lyrical engine isn't exactly flower-powered, either: "May your days be long and cold/May your mirror come back old," the singer curses melodiously, nonchalant as a hired black magician on a midnight run.

Luckily, the chip on Herod's shoulder burns down to nitrous oxide by "Tonight on the WB," a bubbly, midtempo romp that finds Mr. Unrequited in mixed-emotion mode and late-'90s England. "Your legs are so skinny/You're so rich with meaning," he coos on the verse, candy-skinned warmth giving way to Wannadies-flavored sass on the chorus: "I love it when you fall apart/You turn it into higher art." Clearly, he's still pissed, but capable of giddy appreciation.

BJM have their brush with last decade's music, too. Their shoegazing debut single, 1995's "Evergreen"—a small treasure buried amidst Wonderland's oldies, live tracks, and rarities—finds Newcombe splitting the difference between the Jesus and Mary Chain and Ride, layers of opalescent guitar setting off a breathy voice not yet chemically battered into submission. Even at career's beginning, the perennial initiator played shill for the alleged unknown, intoning, "Right behind your door/Is a treasure you ignore/But you have to trust me." But the song, as well as a few others from the band's incunabulum, provides welcome respite from the collection's retro redundancy.

"Evergreen" also sounds as though it were recorded a few decades after 1997's "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth." The playful-cum-spiteful jab at the Dandy Warhols—close friends of the band at the time—swipes both Velvets-dumb-down and empty-headed synth. The song also prefigures the between-band feud that forms Dig!'s central narrative (before the film turns into a Dandys biopic), as well as providing an excellent example of how extensively Newcombe has been misunderstood. It was written by then-bassist Matt Hollywood.

Throughout its nearly 15 years and 40 songs, Flaccid Percussive Wasteland is consistently bogged down by an appalling lack of rhythmic variety and vision, with Newcombe seemingly content to let ever-changing drummers and bassists snooze through near-identical generic eighth-note driven beats at roughly the same middling tempo. Worse still, his rhythm sections attack their parts with all the vigor of 60-year-old jobbers at a country club anniversary party, helping turn what might otherwise be decent if half-assed rock into soggy melba toast.

Nonlegend Herod never cuts that kind of slack for himself. Conductor standout "Invisible Drugs" provides a model of careening velocity, complete with middle interlude that lurches on a mutant roller-coaster-spawned grandchild of the "Summertime Blues" riff. While slightly more pop than punk, the song's kinship with the work of fellow Chapel Hillbillies Superchunk flashes in a channeled flurry of sparklers and Roman candles. It also finds Herod stealing circles around Newcombe; the close harmonies on his "I'm chasing invisible drugs/ Over the carpet/Under the stars/Over the rainbow/Into your arms" chorus radiate early Beatles charm of a wattage that Newcombe couldn't manage if he were to tap every transformer in San Francisco.

The song also illustrates the biggest difference between Herod and Newcombe—the latter's unwillingness to challenge himself or his fans musically. He can crank it out, all right; Tepid Peppermint Wonderland is a testament to a decade of flurried activity. Problem is, nearly everything they've done sounds like exactly the same half-baked mélange of Beatles, Stones, and Byrds. Maybe Newcombe really is so fried that he thinks he's channeling the stuff from the Universal Overmind. He might even be paralyzed by the myth of his own genius. With a little luck, his laziness is just another habit, like the big one he kicked five years ago. If ever he emulates Herod, who almost undoubtedly admired him at some point, Newcombe might just find his lukewarm breath fresheners dissolving in a river of molten taffy.

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The Comas play Crocodile Cafe with Vietnam and Tourist at 9 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 24. $8 adv.

 
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