Rock, like design, can aspire to many things. It can be dazzlingly radical, like Frank Gehry’s architecture. It can be shamelessly retro, like those pricey faux diner clocks at Restoration Hardware. And sometimes it can be formalist and purely functional, like an Ikea coffee table. One aesthetic isn’t necessarily better than the other. They simply serve different ends.
The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Take Them On, On Your Own falls into the last camp, joining the Strokes and other back-to-basics rock acts looking to counter pop’s baroque excess. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club came together in San Francisco, another locale known for high-concept design. They take their name from the biker flick ”The Wild One,” and their debut, last year’s ”B.R.M.C.,” seemed more concerned with refining their Goth-Brando image than their songwriting, which was heavy-handed darksider rock with a British flavor. The mixtape pick was ”Whatever Happened to My Rock’n’Roll (punk song),” a cleverly packaged gem with the whiff of a car ad. The record was huge in England, where rock fans always appreciate pale young men making lugubrious tributes to disaffection.
”Take Them On, On Your Own” marks a definite improvement, the band cranking up the tempo a couple of notches and embracing their Britpop destiny. Perpetually black-clad frontmen Peter Hayes and Robert Turner and English expat drummer Nick Jago have learned a lot from sharing stages with Oasis and Spiritualized – about melodies from the former, drones and extended song structures from the latter. Lyrically, they’re still dishing out the sexy gloom and doom, though songs like ”U.S. Government” tinker obliquely with protest rock. Which is fine, although what makes the track thrilling is not the politics but the dynamics, which whip you around like a Tilt-A-Whirl before launching into a zero-gravity coda. Form largely trumps meaning here: ”Take Them” is as well suited to making out or breaking the speed limit as soundtracking an antiwar rally. And in this multitasking age, that’s a design that should shift units.