Like most of Britain's Next Big Things, the Jesus and Mary Chain owes its sound and reputation to a single gimmick. The formula is fairly simple. Mix a '60s-style melodic idea with brooding, Joy Division lyrics and a thudding, Spectoresque beat, drench with feedback, heat until tepid and serve to the fashion hounds. Yield: six months of hype and one moderately interesting album.
That album, "Psychocandy" (Reprise 9 25383-2), has finally been released in this country and is likely to be taken as further proof that British pop fads are best left unexported. True, the band has managed to drum up enough interest stateside to support a tour that will bring it to the University of Maryland's Grand Ballroom on Tuesday. But given the meagerness of the music offered here, it seems unlikely that the Jesus and Mary Chain will generate anything more than mere cult curiosity.
Granted, there is an appealing novelty to the band's approach, especially its fondness for feedback. This isn't just noise for its own sake; after all, any idiot can forget to ground an amplifier. It takes a certain imagination to drive that groaning spike of sound through the heart of a pop song as disingenuous as "Just Like Honey," and therein lies the Jesus and Mary Chain's genius.
Trouble is, the JMC is strictly a one-joke band, and frankly, the joke isn't all that new. Guitar distortion, after all, is as old as rock itself, dating back to Jackie Brentson's 1951 "Rocket 88" with endless variations on that basic hum-whine and fuzz following in its wake.
The Jesus and Mary Chain's particular brand of buzz is little more than an update of what the Velvet Underground offered on the likes of "Sister Ray" or "White Light, White Heat." The only significant improvement is that advances in solid-state technology have allowed these young Britons to produce feedback even more resolutely unmusical than that of their forebears. Which is a help, because JMC is otherwise much more amateurish than the Velvets ever were.
Once the novelty of the noise wears off, the listener is left with the pop side of the package, and that's where "Psychocandy" truly falls apart. Some of the songs are winning enough despite their overly explicit echoes; "Cut Dead" pleasantly recaps a number of early Lou Reed ballads, while "Never Understand" is perhaps the most unlikely Beach Boys tribute since the Ramones' "Rockaway Beach."
But for the most part, these aren't songs, they're just song fragments flushed out by the band's arranging gimmick. Unless this band works on developing its ideas into a more varied and professional approach, it's hard to imagine the Jesus and Mary Chain enduring for more than a few months.
It's fashionable to forget that competence is important, even for young rebels; after all, what good is imagination if you haven't the ability to realize the sound of your dreams? A case in point is John Lydon, who not too long ago was known as Johnny Rotten, the snarling, derisive front man of the Sex Pistols. But since forming Public Image Ltd. (PiL) in 1978, Lydon has steadily refined both his singing and his music.
Thus, it's in no way a complaint to call "Album" (Elektra 9 60438-1), PiL's latest release, slick, for Lydon manages to invest the seven songs here with the same combination of wit, venom and rage that has fueled his best work. Given the array of sidemen here -- guitarist Steve Vai, drummers Ginger Baker and Tony Williams, synthesist Riuichi Sakamoto -- that's all the more impressive. But between Lydon's resolute vision and Bill Laswell's sympathetic coproduction, the results are wholly in keeping with the rawer bits of PiL's back catalogue despite their degree of polish.
In many ways, this is a culmination of an assortment of ideas Lydon and PiL had put forth in the past, from the purposefully blank packaging (in tape, "Album" is called "Cassette") to the flirtation with hard rock textures and Arabic melodic ideas. "FFF," for example, slams its hook home with the sort of syncopated power riff the Sex Pistols could only have dreamed of, while "Ease," with its Japanese pastoral introduction and growling modal guitars, offers a better balance of eastern influences than anything on "Flowers of Romance."
And best of all, the mocking tone with which Lydon chants "anger is an energy" in "Rise" suggests that the singer has lost neither his sense of distance or amusement, making him as astute a commentator as ever.