Monday, November 24, 2008

Someone Tell Kevin Shields He's Officially Past Due

...or Mrs. Rose's Lil' Fussbudget Wastes 13 Million Dollars

So it's finally here. No, not Prisonshake's awesome, 15-years-in-the-making, follow-up to The Roaring Third. That came out a few months ago. I'm talking about Chinese Democracy.

I loved Guns N Roses as a kid. Appetite for Destruction absolutely floored me at the age of 10. (Though that will happen when you're a pre-adolescent and someone is saying "fuck" constantly.) GnR were probably the first rock band I ever really cared about. However, I'm not one to wallow in nostalgia. Like most things I enjoyed as a child, I have quite a different opinion as an adult. I'm not going to pretend that Guns N Roses were more than they actually were anymore than I'd say that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe featured some really sharp dialogue.

Appetite for Destruction was and remains a good to great slice of hard rock. As much as some its songs have been played out over the past 20 years, it's hard to deny the power of songs like "It's So Easy" or "Nightrain" or even "Sweet Child O' Mine." It's no wonder that GnR stood head and shoulders above the rest of the party hardy LA glam metal pack. Their sound was grimy and raw, not processed and inviting. And while their lyrics depicted the same Dionysian lifestyle as their peers, they did so in a less frivolous, more realistic manner, acknowledging that actions had consequences. Nothing about Guns N Roses felt sugarcoated.

Still, being better than Poison or Mötley Crüe is no great accomplishment. Standing next to dwarfs will make anyone look tall. Guns N Roses got a lot of credit for simply not being awful. They may have been the best thing the LA glam scene barfed up but if you hold them up to their influences (I'm thinking Alice Cooper, Stones, Aerosmith, Rose Tattoo or AC/DC) GnR were just passable: a solid hard-boogie band with punkish leanings featuring a handful of exceptional songs and a weirdly charismatic frontman.

Which brings us to Axl. Axl, oh Axl. I'll acknowledge the substantial role he played in Appetite's commercial and artistic success but it seemed as though subsequent releases succeeded in spite of Axl rather than because of him. It might seem like nothing in comparison to the wait for Chinese Democracy but do you remember the constant delay for the Use Your Illusion albums? The band even went on a summer tour in '91 before the albums were released because they just weren't ready in Axl's mind. And when they finally were released, how much of them felt over produced and fussed with? Unnecessary and distracting overdubs abounded. And let's not forget Axl's unfortunate Elton John/Queen fixation coming to fruition.

Skip ahead 17 years. Add in a hell of a lot more time and money to needlessly mess around in the studio. Now subtract any of the other elements besides Axl that made Guns N Roses interesting in the first place (namely the contributions of the other members of the band). Given that equation, how good could anyone expect Chinese Democracy to be?

So let's get to it:

1. Chinese Democracy
I first heard the title track/first single a couple of weeks ago when a friend played it for me at his place. My first impression was that it was better than I thought it would be. It actually sounds like a rock song. A bloated, overproduced rock song but a rock song nonetheless. The public won't reject it out of hand as I thought they would and the album will probably move a few units. Not enough to recoup the 13 million dollars spent on it but it's only money, right?

2. Shakler's Revenge
Starts with a noisy intro that would do early SPK proud. After those brief seconds of pleasure, the song pretty much sucks out the rest of the way, the highlight/low point being a guitar solo that sounds like warmed over Vernon Reid or Reeves Gabrels.

3. Better
This isn't too bad. You can certainly hear where all that money went at the very least. It makes sense that this is the second single. If Axl's goal is to be "Better" than his competition on rock radio right now, which is like Nickelback and Linkin Park I guess, much in the same way he outshined Warrent then mission accomplished.

4. Street of Dreams
Uh oh. Piano intro. Are we going to be subjected to Axl's Elton John fixation again? Yes, we are. Never my favorite aspect of GnR it at least provides a nice breather from the pseudo-industrial obnoxiousness of the first three tracks. Over production is still full effect though, with a string section that would embarrass Billy Corgan.

5. If the World
What the hell is this? Flamingo disco? But don't worry rock fans. The processed guitars come in soon enough. As I mentioned earlier, in revisiting the Use Your Illusion albums, it occurred to me how many of the songs were ruined by Axl's fussiness and perhaps OCD-related need for "perfection." Just off the top of my head, check out "Double Talkin' Jive" or"Pretty Tied Up" for an evidence. Chinese Democracy thus far is nothing but Axl's fussiness with no raunchy blues-based songcraft (usually courtesy of Izzy Stradlin') to provide relief.

6. There Was a Time
I'm really getting sick of these synthesized strings. Dizzy Reed is really trying to make himself essential isn't he? This song is dreck. Pretty exemplar of what I was fearful this album would be. Six and a half minutes long too. This is getting painful.

7. Catcher in the Rye
More piano. Sort of sounds like the Faces being covered by, I don't know, Filter or somebody. That's not a compliment. And "Catcher in the Rye?" Does anyone beyond the age of 16 still consider that book profound? I mean if you're not stalking a celebrity. This song is approaching the 6 minute mark as well. Fuck, I'm only halfway through the album. This is turning into some kind of endurance test. David Blaine's got nothing on me.

8. Scrapped
Axl harmonizes with himself a cappella in the intro, like some kind of clueless, white-trash Beach Boys. Another rock song which, thankfully, only goes to three and minutes. Still about three and half minutes too long. 17 years and this was the best you can do, Axl? The chorus of "Don't you try and stop us now" is kind of hilarious in this context. No one has been trying to stop you, Axl. And we've got free Dr Pepper to prove it.

9. Sorry
Shit. Another 6 minute plus reflective song. Why does Axl think that deep emotions can only evoked though turgid and plodding arrangement? I curse anyone who told him that "November Rain" was a great song.You know how sometimes the authorities will blast hard rock at high volume during stand off situations to try and break the opposition? I totally understand that now.

10. Riad N' The Bedouins
I guess the "n" apostrophe means it's supposed to be a kick ass rocker. It's not half as good as "Dust N" Bones" though. The pace is lively and the chorus melodic enough to make it the most tolerable song since the third track. Who are Riad and the Bedouins anyway? Are they some historical or literary figures? Remind me to Wikipedia later.

11. I.R.S.
It's definitely a bad sign when a song begins and I'm checking the track length to see how long I'm going to have to sit through it. I can't believe Chuck Klosterman gave this a good review in the Onion AV Club. Oh wait. Yes I can.

12. Madagascar
Myspace has interrupted the album for a second time to tell me that Meiko's album is available for download for only $1.99. "As heard on last night's Grey's Anatomy." Welcome to the media of the new millennium. Though like the media of the old millennium, she's easy on eyes with negligible musical talent. Anyway, back to Chinese Democracy. Horns and strings intro then more mid tempo tedium. The horns and strings don't even sound real. You would think that Axl spend some of the 17 years and millions of dollars to hire actual string and horn ensembles. Or maybe he did and just processed the hell out of them to sound like shitty synths. Whoa, sharp left turn here. Instead of a guitar solo there's a trip-hop breakdown and a Martin Luther King sample. What does that have to do with anything? Only Mr. Rose knows.

13. This I Love
This ought to please fans of "Estranged" if any of those exist. Just one more song after this. I can do this. Just a little further to go. I usually try to listen to records at least three or four times before I write about them. That isn't going to happen here.

14. Prostitute
Actually kind of pretty especially considering the ugly song title. The Scrotum Poles' "Pick the Cat's Eyes Out" still takes the title for widest ratio between ugliness of band name and song title to loveliness of the tune. I'm waiting for the hard crunch of guitars to arrive though. There we go. Thankfully they don't continue for the duration of the song. Lyric sample: "What would you say if I told him that I'm to blame?" I would say that within six months you'll be on the phone with Slash and Duff to see if Velvet Revolver is still an ongoing concern now that Scott Weiland is out of the band. I wonder what his solo album is like. It wouldn't surprise me if it's even worse than this but at least it didn't cost the gross national product of a third world nation to make.

Chinese Democracy will be probably be a moderate success. I fully expect it to debut at number one on the charts. There's enough mystique around Guns N Roses and the album itself to guarantee that. Whether or not the fans will be satisfied remains to be seen. I am pretty surprised that the album seems to be getting generally positive reviews from major critics. Is the bar really that low nowadays? It seems to me that the only way to really enjoy Chinese Democracy is to actually be Axl Rose.

Axl, if you're reading this and want to mention me in an updated version of "Get in The Ring," please do. I could really use the exposure.


Bill Dwyer said...

I consider this album to be the Phantom Menace of the Guns n' Roses "saga".

PB said...

You're more right than you know. Apparently this is supposed to be the first album of a trilogy.

Does this mean Tommy Stinson is Jar Jar Binks?