Jesus and Mary Chain, Automatic – Retro CD Review

1989’s Automatic by the Jesus And Mary Chain gave the group’s sound an even further refined sound from their first two albums. The album was more intensively produced and mostly utilized synthesized bass lines and drum machine for the rhythm section, although the group continued to use a live drummer and bassist despite this development in the studio. However, it was not as well received because of this. Most of the critics felt that the group had given up to the whims of the record labels due to the fact that the sound was not as raw. This would change with the release of the following album, Honey’s Dead…but I’m not here to review that one, now am I?

Automatic does start off a bit mild, but that’s understandable considering the transition from the previous album, Darklands. “Here Comes Alice” serves as a decent prelude to the rest of the album, and it does start to get a bit funky and bluesy in the outro before it fades out with just bass, vocals and drum track. The second track, “Coast to Coast”, is certainly more upbeat, while “Blues From a Gun” is outright post-modern blues/rock. The guitar work of Bill Reid has definitely improved over time, as is evident, although there are hints, here and there, of the shrieking feedback that made them darlings of the British music press at the outset of their career. It has always been evident that, like Elvis Presley, Jim Reid has a relatively limited baritone/low tenor range, but he definitely handles his chore as the lead vocalist for the band. His lyrics deal with topics as mundane as references to Pepsi and Coke and junkies, to more serious lyrics dealing with depressive suicide cases on the track “Between Planets”. The album itself, however, wavers between brilliant and mundane, due to the monotony of the drum machine, which, although a wonderful device at times, is too sterile and lacks spontaneity found in a real drummer. The accents in the rhythm section are null and void. It almost sounds brittle at times, as is evidenced in “Take It”, which actually employs several samples and makes the group sound almost industrial for a minute. “Head On”, which was the lead single and exposed much of the rest of the world to JAMC, including the result of a cover version done by The Pixies on their final studio album Trompe Le Monde, is close to tedious, but thanks to its simplicity comes out reverberating with a quality that says “play me again”. There are, in fact, some excellent songs during the course of the disc. It seems that they come when the Reid brothers are going for the simple sound, rather than mixing it up with too much complexity. Outstanding tracks include “Head On”, “Halfway to Crazy”, which hearkens to the album Darklands, “UV Ray”; and finally, “Drop”, which is purely acoustic and vocal. “Sunray”, the closer, is one minute and thirty-four seconds of drum and noise guitar that sounds like it was made just for Bill Reid to cut loose. The remaining songs either start out good and then just leave you hanging or just make you feel like you’re counting the ticks of the clock until the track is over. The Mary Chain would get it together eventually and release their best album to date on the next release, in 1992, with Honey’s Dead. This album is a fairly good representation of the direction they were taking, in regard to the overall songwriting; thank goodness they, by that point, abandoned the use of synthesizer and drum machine in their recording. *SIGH* Well, we all have slip-ups; fortunately, this one didn’t turn out too badly.

OVERALL ON THIS RELEASE: I give this album 7.5 out of a possible ten. It would rate lower, but the Reid boys have a touch with songwriting that salvages some of those low points. I will also admit that I saw the guys live in 1994, and their ability to perform these songs live without the synth, but still with a full sound, may contribute to my estimation of this album. They were, however, one of the better live shows I have seen.