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  The Jesus and Mary Chain  

Blanco Y Negro / Warner Brothers

Release Date:


Reviewed by:
  Tracers and PostLibyan  

After loving Darklands so very much, I couldn't wait for the next studio album by The Jesus and Mary Chain. After what seemed like a lengthy delay (hey, I was a teenager), we finally got Automatic. Thinking back to 1989, I really liked this record. It had some really great tunes (Between Planets and the sublime Head On, for a start) and the quicker pace of Automatic suited me at the time. Maybe it wasn't as inspired as Darklands, but I was well pleased with this follow-up.

Having said that, it's amazing the things you notice when you do a set of reviews of a band's catalogue. Listening to Darklands and Automatic, I am immediately struck by how so very much of Automatic sounds like a rewrite of tunes off of Darklands. Likewise, the synthesized lower end (both drum and bass) which didn't seem to out of place in the electronic 80s feels more mechanized and wan these days.


I wanted to like this record, and i really tried to. I listened to it over and over, absorbed the songs and learned them. But … something has changed here. JAMC are a different band on this record then they were on Darklands and Barbed Wire Kisses. They seemed more generic, for as Tracers points out the heavily electronic sound of the rhythm section was very in keeping with the spirit of the times. But it also seems that the Reid brothers had started playing their guitars differently. This was not a record of squealing, overdriven, poppy blues; instead it was a record of big rock riffs, JAMC taking their first foray into the stadium rock that was to lead to great success in America in a few years time for them. To me, this record is on par with U2’s Straddle and Hum -- a bad had discarded what made them unique and interesting to me in favor of a more generic yet braoder applealing sound.

I admit – i sold my copy of this CD to a used store back in the late 1990s for a few bucks. I had not listened to it in about 15 years or so when we embarked on this project. So after listening to it again, my first comment is that it is very overproduced. And yes, the drum machine sounds cheesey after all these years. However, it is not as bad of a record as i remember. In fact, despite the overproduction, it holds up fairly well.


Well, I still like Automatic, although clearly I hear its flaws

As an example of this, let's take the first track Here Comes Alice. Despite the crisply electronic thudding bass and snare-happy drum programming, the immediate rhythm and melody recalls the title track of Darklands, from the breathy vocals to the chord progression. Admittedly, Darklands is a great song and one worth remembering, but I had never really noticed that if you remove the feedback and sharpish guitar solo, Here Comes Alice is basically the same song, down to the "Do doos" towards the end. In contrast, Coast to Coast harkens back to the more feedback laden rock style of the tunes found on Barbed Wired Kisses. It's a harder sounding tune, with washes of guitar work that not supported by that afore-mentioned wan lower end. In other words, it's rather trebly in a fairly mechanical sense, at least until the echo feedback bridge kicks in around the two minute mark.

Blues From a Gun is harder still, with almost droney guitar work under Jim Reid's snarly snotty voice. In this context, the programmed drums seem too crispy and clear, especially in light of the layered effects of the guitar. This discordant aspect of Automatic can be somewhat off-putting, especially since the drum programming seems so rote and basic in contrast to the ebbs and flows of the live instrumentation.


Herre, the Reid’s playing reminiscent of their earlier, more unique work. This version is hampered by the production which puts the drum machine to clear and too loud in the mix. Still, not a bad tune.

  However, all of the discordant production seems to fade away with Between Planets, a pure pop song ala Happy When it Rains, which not incidentally, this song closely resembles. On this tune, the crispy, light drums don't stand out against the vocals, but rather seem to keep the piece barreling along. Likewise, the guitar work seems more driven by the melody than by the effects, which propels the poppy happy bounce. Needless to say, I like this one a lot.


Again, the ratio of drum machine to guitar is too high, but still, this is catchy and poppy.


UV Ray comes next and to my 18 year old self, this sounded very punky and almost industrial. I think at the time I compared to That Petrol Emotion's End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, which had come up a few months earlier. At the time, this perception was due to Reid's petulant sounding vocals and the skitter guitar work that was overdriven to hell and back. Listening to it these days, this is another tune where the drum machine leaves a lot of the table and where a thudding tom-heavy drum sound would have perhaps served the song better.


Your comparison to That Petrol Emotion is interesting. To me, this is similar to Ministry’s The Land of Rape and Honey which had come out the previous year. Ministry did this sound better, at the time.

  Her Way of Praying follows and serves the mashup of programming and guitarwork better. Admittedly, the vocals are way up front in the mix and the layers of guitars only take center stage when the voice falls out. Likewise, the electronic aspects of the tune seem more organic and natural on this tune than they do on the others.

But from there we move on to the exquisite Head On these days, I think most folks know this one better from the cover the Pixies had on Trompe le Monde, which is in fact the better recording, if I must be honest. Still, this is the original, complete with a fast beat, laconic vocals, an actual bassline, and minimal guitar effects. To top it off, Head On is the one brilliant tune on Automatic which doesn't feel or sound like a redo of something The Jesus and Mary Chain had previously recorded. Great stuff all the way.


Actually, as I was relistening to this version for the first time in ages, my immediate thought was that this is an updated version of Happy When It Rains.


Of course, after the glory of Head On, it's a bit disappointing to come back to the discontinuity of echoes and effects and fake drums. And Take It it filed with all of these. The guitar effects overwhelming everything and feel off in a tonal sense; likewise, the drums and the rest of the melody feel out of synchronization, which was perhaps the intent but which also makes the song feel really messy. It's like the band tried to harness off the reverb and squeal of their earliest tunes and then mix in something more skittery. But it doesn't work very well. Still, it does act of as a bit of palate cleanser as we move into Half way to Crazy, which was one of my favorite tunes on Automatic back in the day. On this song, the band removes most of the guitar effects, stripping down the sound so that the fake drums aren't as noticeably out of place. It's a nicely done, almost ballady tune which as I mentioned I really liked. And I still like it, but when I listen to it now, I'm struck by how much of it sounds like Tommy James and Shondells' Crimson and Clover (which is a song that I also like).


Ha, yes, it is Crimson and Clover. And, of course, now that I have been perusing their whole catalog, this is a precursor to what they would do on Stoned and Dethroned.


The last track on the original vinyl release of Automatic is Gimme Hell. This song is notable because it features an actual real live drummer, Richard Thomas. And let me tell you that difference is very noticeable, as Thomas thuds his way through a syncopated beat that manages to emphasize the guitarwork without being repetitive (unlike the programmed drums on the rest of the album). Musically, this closely resembles Her Way of Praying, but with more fullness and richness in its musicality. It makes you wonder how good Automatic could have been with a full band.


I dislike this tune in general, but was fascinated to learn who this Richard Thomas was, because at the time I had not heard of him. He is, of course, the same guy who played tablas and saxophone on my favorite album ever Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand. Huh.


Still, in 1989 I had a CD player, so I bought the CD release (no point in hauling my vinyl back and forth to college). It had two short (less than 2 minutes each) extra tracks, Drop and Sunray, which don't necessarily fit well into the context of the rest of the album. Drop is a slow-paced, basically acoustic tune, which is oddly pretty for The Jesus and Mary Chain. And finally we have the instrumental Sunray, which is more skittish and feature the same programmed drumbeat as much of the album but with soaring, extra-effected guitarwork that fades into a echo.

So there you have it. Automatic hasn't aged as well as Darklands, especially in the context of the lower end. But it still had some great moments, even if parts of it seem like Darklands-lite. This is probably still my second favorites record by The Jesus and Mary Chain, if only for those few poppy songs that they manage to produce so well.

As one final note, Postlibyan and I saw The Jesus and Mary Chain in Atlanta while they were on tour for Automatic. This new group (at the time) called "Nine Inch Nails" opened and I wasn't too impressed. But the set of The Jesus and Mary Chain was a revelation to me: the band played in almost complete darkness, turned away from the audience and shrouded in fog. I loved it and maybe just maybe that's the other reason I still have a fondness for Automatic.

Related Links:
Also on EvilSponge:
   An overiew of The Jesus and Mary Chain (lots of links)
   Album: Darklands
   Compilation: Barbed Wire Kisses
   Album: Psychocandy (1985)


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