Imagine if aliens had captured the Rolling Stones and locked them in a time capsule right around the time they started hanging out in Morocco, but before Brian Jones took a nosedive into drug-induced oblivion. Imagine that he won the battle of egos and he ran the Stones, not Mick. The result might well resemble the Brian Jonestown Massacre, whose most recent release, Tepid Peppermint Wonderland, is a fabulously glittering representation of their particular brand of sonic time-warped psychedelia.
Tepid Peppermint Wonderland is a two-disc, 38-song collection of songs that attempts to summarize thus far the prodigious, prolific career of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Consisting of material spanning 1995 to 2004, it’s labelled a “retrospective” quite deliberately, because it is one of the rare collections that actually successfully summarizes the band’s career into a digestible portion. With the exception of a 1998 album (Strung Out In Heaven, released on TVT), Tepid Peppermint Wonderland is great bang for your buck if you don’t own any of the BJM albums, or if you own a few and want to fill in the rest of the holes in your collection. In fact, it might even do the job too well; because there are 9 albums as well as two EP’s and other collections of random music to be had in total. Unless you’re obsessed or a completist, this collection hands you more than enough BJM to keep you sated for quiet some time.
The collection is organized sonically rather than chronologically, which makes for a more coherent listening experience, but kind of tells the story out of order as a result. Originally I suspected the hand of BJM icon Anton Newcombe in this, but he’s gone on the record as saying that his participation in this project was limited to granting permission, nothing more. (Of course, knowing Newcombe, that could either be the straight truth or a distortion of same.) The compilation includes a book with brief comments from band members on each track. Particular highlights are the trio of songs recorded live on WFMU (one of which, “Swallowtail,” is otherwise unreleased). It would have been a far more interesting experience if the band had been actively involved in the selection of songs, because while TPM is absolutely a solid representation of the band’s career, we don’t know if the songs selected have particular (or any) meaning to the band (or at least to the members who remain; it will probably surprise no one that the cast of characters does change often).
While the BJM are reasonably well-known in indie rock circles on the West Coast, and have an avid but underground following elsewhere, they have gained a great deal of exposure recently due to the documentary “Dig!” released in 2004 to much acclaim. While Newcombe hates the fact that their band keeps being mentioned in the same breath as the film (and has since gone on record disavowing it), the label releasing this compliation is (rightly, I believe, since their job is to sell records) pushing the film as part of their promotion for the record.
Opinions are widely split on the movie and the band. Personally, I believe that rock and roll can and should be fabulous and outrageous, and that those performing it are allowed to be impossible and mercurial if they so choose. I don’t need to “like” a musician to enjoy their music (as Ryan Adams once put it, “I’m not asking you to be my roommate.”) Living in the Pacific Northwest for 9 years, I didn’t need a documentary to tell me that people think that some people think Anton Newcombe might be a little bit of an asshole; people in the scene would declare it to be fact weekly. To which I would reply, amazed, well, what did you think, that he would be Joan Baez or something? (And even Joan went through her own prima donna moments back in the day.) The BJM motto is, after all, “Keep Music Evil.”
I’ve always preferred the live Brian Jonestown Massacre experience to anything they’ve done on record, but Tepid Peppermint Wonderland is certainly essential if you’re even vaguely interested in this band.