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A return to new roots

Singer Robert Levon Been says the newfound bluesy sound on the group's latest album, Howl, is a more mature version of the music B.R.M.C. has always played.

San Francisco rock trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is known for loading down its music with fuzzed-out guitars and walls of distortion. But on its latest album, Howl, the band shed the dissonance for harmonicas, acoustic guitars and even piano.

But as bassist/singer Robert Levon Been tells it, this newfound bluesy sound isn't the big sonic flip-flop that critics and fans are calling it.

"I think when we started playing guitar, me and Peter (Hayes, guitarist/singer), we were more into the country, folk and bluesy style that we're doing on this record, but when we met Nick (Jago, drummer), we started becoming something else, something we thought more people would like," Been says, laughing.

"We love lots of different things - British rock music and American rock music - and so all of it was close to our heart, but we put this other side of us on the back burner. And, I don't know, it just kept burning."

Currently on the road - the band drops by the State Theatre in St. Petersburg tonight - B.R.M.C. is experimenting with the new, rootsier material of its third album and folding it into the set alongside its oldies. Been says he still likes the older material but the new songs stand on their own. They're more assured, he says.

"I guess we're going back to where we started, but I don't think we could have made this album then," he says. "It was right that we waited. We needed to grow up a little as well to pull it off. We needed to live a little more.

"It kind of feels like our first record in a lot of ways. Some people say that you get your whole life to write your first record, then you get six months to write the next one. But this felt like we'd been collecting this kind of songs since the beginning as well. It does feel like a beginning for us."

In addition to its looser sound, Howl references a literary and political tradition inspired by the Beat generation. Its title is a direct allusion to Allen Ginsberg's defining poem, and Been says that that cultural influence can be traced in the music.

"When we were writing the record, it took more concentration and more time than we thought for the words," Been says. "We found really fast that any song that was lacking lyrically, it showed more than any other song we'd done. But we were writing stories and poems that were coming through because we were forced to do our homework and really fell in love with all these (Beat generation) writers again. Howl was really to give a nod to those guys, because it felt like they had helped us through this time."

More than just lyrical inspiration, the Beats symbolize the power of protest through art. Some songs on Howl seem to embody this spirit directly, like the slow-burning Devil's Waitin', with its finger-picked guitar work and repeated talk of redemption, and the slingshot melody of Ain't No Easy Way Out, catapulted by its fiery, rollicking riff.

"It's funny. Peter always says that every song's a protest song, and I guess I agree with that to an extent," Been says. "The idea that if you're putting pen to paper, if you're speaking your mind, you're on the right track - if it's that simple, then I'd agree with that.

"It's hard for me to talk about. I think we feel pretty heavy despair a lot of the time for the times we live in and the people that we know (who) fight the good fight and lose most of the time. I feel like a lot of the days, I'm trying to think about it and get to a place where it doesn't drag me down - with the state of our culture and art itself, where we're at in 2006.

"I'm trying to look at the cup as half full, but I don't know what it's half full of right now."

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