I’m not going to pretend I’m cooler than anybody or anything; I've only known about Black Tambourine for about a year now even though they’ve been defunct since 1991. Oddly, I first remember hearing about them on Stereogum’s comments section, when someone called the Pains of Being Pure at Heart a straight-up rip of the defunct Maryland band. So I’m not going to pretend I’m the first to make that comparison either. But I will say this: If you like anything fuzzy, reverb-lovin’ or twee, you should be listening to Black Tambourine.
It’s the perfect time for a new compilation of the group (and obviously Slumberland thinks so too), with their sound coming back into style over the past couple years. If you like Pains, Vivian Girls, the Raveonettes, Dum Dum Girls, Crystal Stilts or countless others, just be aware that they owe this band BIG. Black Tambourine responded to the sounds coming out of the UK (Scotland esp.) in the '80s with the cleaner pop of Orange Juice and the Pastels and the noisier territory covered by Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine (among others), added it to American and UK twee melodies and aesthetics (K Records/Sarah Records) and created the perfect recipe. Unfortunately, they were always just a side project to the members (who were also in Velocity Girl, Whorl and the Lilys at the time, with Mike Schulman also helping run Slumberland) and the group only lasted from 1989-1991, played few shows and released a mere 10 songs in their lifetime.
These ten songs were spread across two 7” EPs and a couple compilations (including a song on the first Slumberland release ever) which were later collected in 1999 on the so-called Complete Recordings. After listening originally on Lala, I picked up that collection last year after a bit of a search (neither of my local indie shops had it) and I loved it immediately. “Throw Aggie Off the Bridge” is pure gold with its strong bassline, not-too-fuzzy guitars, and vocal line that showed off Pam Berry’s strong range and melodic prowess. “Black Car” is the blueprint for what Pains are now famous for--that layering of a jangly guitar over a fuzzy/feeding-back guitar and cute vocals with a shit-ton of reverb on ‘em. “By Tomorrow” brings it down a bit starting with bass arpeggios and clean guitar, saving the noisy stuff for key moments. “Drown” is clean as well with a nice 6/8 Motown kinda vibe, with the guitar swells reduced to the background. “For Ex-Lovers Only” hits hard with a rapid floor-tom powered beat, fuzzy guitars layered on each other and with feedback used liberally as Berry’s angelic vocals somehow escape the chaos. One thing that sets the band apart from all the other bands of this ilk that came before or after is that they don’t focus solely on the guitar. As much as I’m a JAMC fanatic, they don’t give a crap about the drums or bass doing anything interesting--they are just there to support the guitar and vocals. Black Tambourine have interesting parts on every instrument while still being sure the parts fit together and don’t step on each other.
But get this: Black Tambourine were not perfect. “Pam’s Tan,” their first recorded track, is pretty worthless. First of all, it ironically doesn't contain the gem of the band--Pam--who was on a trip in UK at the time. It’s an instrumental track with a simple repetitive guitar melody, recorded poorly. Other times, the drums get sloppy and in turn can make a song sloppy overall. Some would take this as a positive element, saying it adds to the whole punk/twee dynamic. I can overlook these weaknesses because yeah, the band did have a pretty great sound.
Fast-forward to January 2010, and I hear about a new release on Slumberland, the simply titled Black Tambourine. Well, I needed this too. Whatever it was. It had 16 tracks. How was this possible, when my Complete Recordings had a meager 10 tracks?! Turns out they dug up demo versions of two of the best songs, the aforementioned “Aggie” and “For Ex-Lovers Only.” Usually I don’t give a crap about demo versions. But in this case, they offer a pretty cool insight into a band honing what, at first glimpse, might seem like an already raw and slapdash sound. Plus, you’ll want to listen to “Aggie” twice anyways, and you’ll see that they actually dialed back the feedback on the intro to reveal the strong bassline that starts the finished version.
Also included are four NEW recordings. What the? Yes, the band reunited in the studio in June 2009 to record songs that the band had played live in their day but never laid to tape. Miraculously, they maintain their production aesthetic (though at this point it must be a tad forced) and it makes the new blend right in with the old. Two are covers: Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” which gets slowed down a tad and is powered by fuzz bass, melodica, glockenspiel with Berry’s still-saccharine-sweet voice; Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” seems like a perfect choice for their oldie-at-its-core sound, and their version revs it up to punk speed, adds rapid-fire cowbell and snare and what sounds like canned air (like Joy Division used on “She’s Lost Control,” but maybe it’s just cabasa)--all in a minute-forty. The overall vibe sounds like they are upstaging what Pains were goin’ for on their EP track “103.”
Then there are two new originals. “Lazy Heart” is an awesome upbeat rocker with the feel of an oldie in melody and chord progression. Like the covers, it adds some flair they left out on their old recordings, like handclaps and glockenspiel. It sounds completely natural to the band’s sound, though I can’t help but think they were influenced themselves by the bands in their wake with glockenspiel becoming synonymous with twee in this past decade. “Tears of Joy” is even more of a rocker with its staccato rhythms in the intro. It has some raucous moments coming out of the choruses with low bass rumblings and a cymbal-heavy beat, but it keeps things catchy thanks to Ms. Berry.
If you continued reading past the first two paragraphs, chances are you’re already aware of the group or have already added this to an online shopping cart before finishing the review. If you like any of the bands I’ve been throwing around, just go get this, post-haste.