Pink Mountaintops’ “Get Back” Reveals More of Stephen McBean’s Multiple Personalities

In the early years of Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops, the meme developed that the latter band was an “alternative side” of Stephen McBean’s personality.  In retrospect, that’s a little hard to figure, or it is at least a little simplistic. Stephen McBean is such a protean figure that his constant alternatives to his last invocation could rapidly resemble a hall of mirrors.

And anyway, are the two bands, the two… aspects… of McBean’s songwriting, singing, and most excellent guitar playing, really so different? Let’s rewind to the beginning. Pink Mountaintops’ brilliant 2006 album Axis of Evol could easily be seen as coming from a similar sensibility as, say, Black Mountain circa its first record or the Druganaut E.P.  “Cold Criminals” sounded like it was the product of someone who’d spent a lot of time listening to Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance, while “Bicycle Man” was steeped in the No Wave sound of New York circa ’78.  Are those different sides?  So far away from one another?  Not really.

To us, McBean has always been one of the great dabblers, an ambitious throwback who could in the span of two years record one of the best Velvet Underground-sounding songs — Pink Mountaintops’ “The Gayest of Sunbeams” — and one of our favorite invocations of Led Zeppelin — Black Mountain’s “The Hair Song.” The only people who split the difference between Zep and the Velvets while in the same rough phase of their careers are those who, as the lyrics to the great Black Mountain song “Voices” would have it, have come down with the same bug all of us at Tulip Frenzy are riddled with: “Rock’n’roll voices on the radio/I’ve been in love with you since I was five years old.” He loves it all: all those rock’n’roll voices: Lou’s, and Bowie’s, and Robert Plant’s, and often in harmony with a singer as great as Amber Weber, which brings us to such pairings as Exene and John Doe and Sonny and Cher.

While his shambling, hippy-era countenance might give off a hash and patchouli perfume, leading you to think of McBean as a slacker, and while the pace of releases since 2005’s eponymous Black Mountain album might not seem like he breaks a sweat, the sheer volume of not just good, but thoroughly excellent music McBean’s been responsible for over the last nine years is pretty remarkable.  If his interest was simply in being a rock star, he probably would have helped corral the Black Mountain Army to keep pushing through in support of Wilderness Heart, which caused a stir in 2010.  But instead the band put out some new songs on the Year Zero film soundtrack, toured a bit, and did not sustain the momentum.  It’s easily recaptured, they’ve built a good following.  But McBean’s not interested, it seems, in such straight forward careerism.

Enter Pink Mountaintops’ Get Back, in which with an imposing posse behind him — J. Mascis on guitar, Daniel Allaire from Brian Jonestown Massacre on drums, Rob Barbato of Darker My Love on bass, etc. — McBean invokes everything from Station to Station-era Bowie to “All Along The Watchtower.”  Ensconced in Los Angeles these days, McBean continues a Canadian-style assault on greatness: low-key, humorous, thoroughly competent.

We think “Ambulance City” may be the most infectious rocker out this year, which is saying something since John Dwyers’ Thee Oh Sees have already released an album.  “Through All The Worry” sounds like something you wish Social Distortion was still putting out.  “Wheels” is the “All Along The Watchtower” analogue, though obviously invoking the Hendrix version.  Whether that’s Mascis or McBean on lead, we don’t know, but it is like sonic dental floss, cleaning out the cavity between our ears. We can see the members of Crocodiles smiling when they hear “Sell Your Soul,” one of those songs that makes you remember how mid-70s Bowie was so influenced by early Springsteen, he borrowed Roy Bittan to play piano. “North Hollywood Microwaves” is Not Safe For Driving With Children Or Spouses, an hilarious novelty.  By the time we get to the closer, “The Last Dance,” we’ve returned to mid-’70s pre-punk, to the Station To Station sound with which the album began.  It’s an impressive, Rockist tour de force.

How Get Back ultimately fits into McBean’s canon is unknowable at this time.  What we know is that his multiple personalities are given full vent, and that a figure whose bands have called to mind Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground and Pere Ubu, and Bowie, always Bowie, is as well-rounded an artist as there exists today.  Selfishly, we can’t wait to see the set of characters McBean inhabits on the next slab of Black Mountain.

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