For some reason I've never bought in to the Mary Chain myth. Where others have heard soft-centred Brian Wilson melodies coated in Velvet Underground noise and distortion - an alluring combination in theory - I could only detect reheated punk leftovers. It would be nice to be able to write that this belated compilation of all the band's A-sides has caused an abrupt sea change in my ability to appreciate their music, but it would also be a lie.
Their apparently ground-breaking debut 45 "Upside Down" at least sounds distinctive, with its near 1:1 feedback-to-melody ratio, something that must have ripped through the bloated carcass of a British music industry gorging itself on the aspirational emptiness of the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet or would have if anyone were listening. But by the time of their second release, "Never Understand", a formula was already solidly in place - tinny drum machine, thin, distant vocals, economical near-melody and electronic howls of protest - that they gradually refined over the rest of their career, sounding fuller and less processed with time, but rarely deviated from.
It's those rare deviations that provide most of the scant entertainment value "21 Singles 1984-1998" has to offer. "Head On" bucks the prevailing trend: maybe it's because the Pixies covered it on their wondrous "Trompe Le Monde" album, perhaps it's due to its presence on Telstar's semi-legendary "Product 2378" compilation, an ostensibly nasty TV-advertised cash-in that accidentally became an instant primer on the state of late-80s indie, but for whatever reason this chugging gem remains one of the few Jesus And Mary Chain songs I can admit to enjoying. Equally, all three selections from the 1992 album "Honey's Dead" are very fine: the robo-funk and driller killer distortion of "Reverence" finds the band at their most innovative and invigorated since "Upside Down", and the Byrdsian jangle of "Far Gone And Out" and "Almost Gold"'s breathy near-ballad status aren't far behind in the excellence stakes. Hope Sandoval, once of Mazzy Star, adds some colour (any colour you like so long as it's black!) to "Sometimes Always", and there's something pleasantly ironic about the lines "I love rock 'n' roll/I love what I'm doing" - in, what else, "I Love Rock N Roll", the last single to be released before the ever fractious Reid brothers parted for good.
Even in this compressed and truncated form, the legacy of The Jesus And Mary Chain seems to have more to do with attitude than ability, style than songcraft. Musical highlights are few and far between, but even so "21 Singles" is a more enjoyable listen than anything Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have released.
THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN Psychocandy (Reprise)
For some reason Ive never been anywhere near as knocked out by The Jesus And Mary Chain in general and Psychocandy in particular as Ive often read I shouldve been, and hearing it again in 180 gram HQ vinyl form courtesy of the good folks at Rhino hasnt changed my opinion. Yes, there was something innovative in the way the Reid brothers drowned sweet, innocent pop tunes in vat upon vat of acrid, ear-syringing distortion and trebly, tinnitus buzz, but its essentially a musical dead end. Given how few of Psychocandys 14 songs are truly memorable to any degree, it seems more like a prickly protective shield around their inherent flimsiness.
Just Like Honey might swim in a sea of noise, but even this is a step back from the sonic brinkmanship of their debut single Upside Down. Amidst the feedback squalls The Living End might as well be playing down the phone at you, and Taste The Floor is buried under layer upon sheet of white noise. The almost balladry of The Hardest Walk offers some desperately needed, hard-earned respite before In A Hole kicks in like a swarm of dentists drill-wielding hornets. Aside from the singles, the driven pop of My Little Underground might be the albums most potent moment, but it doesnt amount to a whole hill of beans in the shadow of the albums cast-iron classic reputation.
If theres a truly memorable tune here, one that actually validates the leather-jacketed, sunglasses-at-night chic the Reid brothers lifted wholesale from The Velvet Underground, Ive yet to find it. If, as the cover sticker asserts, Psychocandy is the Full-Length Debut From the Genre-Defining Band, its telling that it stops short of clarifying exactly which genre The Jesus And Mary Chain actually defined.