Joel Gion

Apple Bonkers

Joel Gion, tambourine player and backing vocalist with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, sometime DJ and known for his buffoonery in the film Dig!, is never going to produce cutting-edge, demanding or complex music. But neither should he remain tarred by his antics in that documentary, which came out 10 years ago. He is now 43 years old. And so it is that his first solo album is not particularly exuberant (no bad thing), lacks depth and comes off as weak when compared with the wit and rollicking madness of Anton Newcombe’s work, but Apple Bonkers is, it should be noted, okay – even if it does have a very silly name. One cannot doubt his heart, at least.

The announcement and coverage of this release seems reluctant to refer to the fact that this is not in fact Gion’s first album of his own songs. In 2007, he released 101 Tambourines as singer with the Dilettantes, a band he had put together with three of his San Francisco friends. It was a decent effort, a spirited and fairly light take on garage rock that in several respects is a more enjoyable listen than Apple Bonkers. 101 Tambourines‘ taut, economical songs have given way to a heavier, more ambitious sound with plenty more instrumental layers, effects and ambition. Whereas 101 Tambourines was a refreshing departure from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Apple Bonkers is very much in the domain of that band, and while Gion certainly has enough taste and experience to avoid disaster, the moments where that style fails make things pretty dull. There are, however, songs that certainly soar, thanks in no small part to the fact Gion’s vocals have improved immeasurably since Dilettantes days, with fuller tones, greater range and more attitude.

Gion’s pretences towards something as full, and dark, as his other band are signposted immediately on opener ‘Yes’, a prolonged drone-jam that while not exactly a juggernaut, is pleasing enough, particularly thanks to the flute that eventually wafts gently over the loud clanging guitars. Such pastoralism does not return, however, which makes this fleeting passage seem like something of an afterthought, a softness that is not explored further.

A similarly percussive mood is found on the impressive ‘Sail On’ as well as ‘Dart’, a song that makes attempts at more structured songwriting, and indeed Apple Bonkers can be thought of as a balance between Gion’s natural inclination towards the repetitive, minimalist realm of psychedelia and bashes at more traditional melody and familiar forms. They are mostly just bashes, mind you, with a few big choruses to be found here, including a rather unsophisticated blaring on the underwhelming ‘Hairy Flowers’.

That said, Gion has produced his best ever song with the moodier, calmer ‘Change My Mind’, a track elevated by vocals from former BJM bandmate Miranda Lee Richards, and some atmospheric production the album might have indulged in further. The song begins with sweet acoustic guitar (as if one of those meeker moments on Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane) before synths match with harpsichord, making for an absorbing four minutes. ‘Mirage’ is another, distinctly more successful, attempt at a verse-chorus number, while ‘Radio Silence’ is a clunky shoe-gaze misstep along the same lines as ‘Hairy Flowers’, two songs that are tedious rather than terrible. The album ends with ‘Don’t Let The Fuckers Bring You Down’, a short, jangly burst of defiance with a spritely organ line that sounds like the most natural thing on the record and is quite charming. Gion is charming in a number of spots on this generally listenable collection, even if it is not exactly one that requires a lot of work.

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