Written by: Paul Gleason
Integrity. The word encompasses many meanings, some of which are honesty, sincerity, and incorruptibility.
There’s no musical artist who better exemplifies integrity – and all the meanings that are synonymous with that word – than Anton Newcombe, the leader of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
This is no hagiography; it’s a reality.
As Newcombe’s work shows – from the shoegaze of Methodrone (1995) to the neo-psychedelic rock of Bravery, Repetition and Noise (2001), from the psychedelic folk of …And This Is Our Music (2003) to the ambient textures of this year’s Musique de film imaginé, and all the other albums in the gaps – he has repeatedly and inarguably exemplified the thrilling results that occur when one, to misuse the words of Mike Love, “fucks with the formula” and remains true to one’s vision.
Newcombe combines in a single musical mind Brian Wilson’s power as an arranger and songwriter, Brian Jones’s experimental tendencies, the punk rock attitude of Iggy Pop, and the straight-up cool of Lou Reed.
So what happens when Newcombe and Tess Parks – the kind of singer-lyricist who, as her debut album Blood Hot aptly showed, has arrived fully formed – join forces?
I Declare Nothing, which came out on Monday.
As lead vocalist and lyricist, Parks proves herself as a smoldering singer (think: Patti Smith and Janis Joplin) with a penchant for digging deep inside herself to write deeply introspective words.
Parks is a guttural singer in every sense of the word. Her deep, inimitable voice sounds like it’s coming from the gut, as do her highly personal lyrics. Like Joni Mitchell and John Lennon, she puts herself on full display.
Listen to “German Tangerine,” in which Parks gives a vocal performance that’s somehow gravelly and smooth at the same time, her voice a knife with a jagged edge. This combination of beauty and edge is her calling card; it allows you to experience the existential pain of “You are nothing” and “I’ll drink up gasoline” as the loneliness that you’ve probably gone through yourself. Ultimately, Parks’s performance makes you feel less alone.
The same introspection holds true for the single, “Mama.” With her voice at the forefront in the mix, Parks fearlessly touches on the mixed feelings that most people have about their parents. But her question, “Mama, how do you feel?,” gets at the song’s true power: its demonstration that empathy for others transcends personal feelings.
Other songs on I Declare Nothing indicate Parks’s and Newcombe’s ability to complement each other’s strengths. Like Brian Jones before him on The Rolling Stones’ “2,000 Light Years from Home,” Newcombe plays the mellotron – and nowhere better than on “Voyage de L’ame.” The instrument sounds glorious and rich in his hands, and it augments Parks’s lyrics, some of which run, “I look to the sky / And ask for answers / Am I really alive? / But there are no answers.” In effect, Newcombe’s mellotron musically reiterates Parks’s lyrical questions by creating the sonic equivalent of a philosophical journey through inner space.
Elsewhere on the record, Parks’s vocals contribute to an ambient mood that Newcombe constructs in his arrangements. “Peace Defrost” is a terrific example of this. The song is really about the mood that Newcombe’s fuzz guitar creates, and Parks’s growls and moans highlight a song that feels like the experience of desperation and angst.
And when Newcombe makes brief appearances as a vocalist on two tracks, the results are terrific. “Gone” – one of the record’s best tracks – is a groovy neo-psych number that makes you want to get up and move around. Parks’s lead vocal is just as rhythmic as the drums, and Newcombe plays a swirling guitar lead and solo. His high-register vocals at the end bring the track to an astounding conclusion and work well with Parks’s lower-register intonations.
“Meliorist” includes some innovative percussion, on top of which Parks sings a creative, ascending melody that accompanies Newcombe’s noise guitar and mellotron work. His laid-back vocal provides a great counterpoint to Parks’s more aggressive voice and leads the way into a mellotron-led ending that sounds positively symphonic.
I Declare Nothing is one of the best records that you’ll hear in 2015 and, hopefully, the start of a beautiful partnership between Parks and Newcombe.
This is no hagiography; it’s a reality.