POISON – Native Tongue (1993 Capitol)
C.C. DeVille was let go from Poison after an embarrassing performance on the 1991 MTV awards. Who can forget the pink-haired C.C.? Drugs and alcohol had taken their toll on the guitar player. There were musical differences as well. Bret Michaels liked the bluesier direction Poison were going on; C.C. preferred basic sloppy rock. A parting of ways was all but inevitable.
Poison were lucky enough to convince guitar prodigy Richie Kotzen to join the band. Kotzen was from Pennsylvania, like Poison, and had released three critically acclaimed solo albums. Richie Kotzen and Electric Joy were hard-to-penetrate instrumental albums, while Fever Dream introduced Richie’s soulful singing voice. He had also contributed the bluesy rock of “Dream of a New Day” to the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack album.
Like many fans, I waited and wondered what the new Poison would sound like. Kotzen claims that many of the songs were completely written, lyrics and all, before he joined Poison. Regardless each song received a four-way songwriting split among the band members. Fans in the know could tell right away that Kotzen’s impact on the songs was much greater than the other members.
Native Tongue was not as immediate as any prior Poison album, but what it lacked in instant hooks it made up for in musicianship and integrity. Native Tongue was also a long album, at almost an hour not including B-sides such as “Whip Comes Down”. It was a lot to absorb, and due to the changing winds of rock, not too many fans were willing to spend time with and get to know Native Tongue.
You couldn’t have asked for a better start to the album that the duo of “Native Tongue”/”The Scream”. Tribal drums by Rikki Rockett and Sheila E. set the scene for one of Poison’s heaviest songs ever. “The Scream” is killer: a relentless driving rock song with aggressive playing and lyrics. Bret Michaels merged this with his Poison singing style, creating a successful hybrid. “The Scream” is one of Poison’s finest achievements, and a hell of a way to kick off the new album with the new guitarist.
“Stand” was the soulful, gospel-like lead single. It didn’t do anything for me, but you have to give Poison credit for going all-in. With choirs and Kotzen’s soulful guitar playing, it’s still an outstanding Poison song. “Stay Alive” was another good tune, this time about bassist Bobby Dall’s struggles with substances. That led into the ballad “Until You Suffer Some (Fire and Ice)”, one of the band’s best such songs. The only weakness here is a grouping of slow songs on side one. “Body Talk” and “Bring It Home” make up for that. “Bring It Home” in particular had that heavy groove that you needed to have in the 1990s, as well as strong backing vocals from Kotzen. “Bring It Home” ended the first side with the heaviest song since “The Scream”.
The one thing that I found difficult about Native Tongue was the aforementioned lack of immediacy. Thankfully, side two had a few songs that maintained that old-tyme Poison singalong chorus. They were “Seven Days Over You” (a horn-inflected goodie), the anthemic “Blind Faith” and, “Ride Child Ride”. These tunes weren’t too much of a departure from earlier Poison of Flesh & Blood. Perhaps if they had been released as singles, there would have been more chart action. “Strike Up the Band” is similar, capturing the high octane rock that Poison were good at doing live.
“Richie’s Acoustic Thang” and “Ain’t That the Truth” are swampy bluesy goodness, crossing Poison and Kotzen perfectly. Where Poison failed to do decent blues before, they finally managed to get it done with Richie. Likewise, “Theatre of the Soul” is a soulful ballad that acts as another album highlight.
The final song was “Bastard Son of a Thousand Blues”, and it is really the only stinker, despite Kotzen having plenty of vocal time. It reminds me of “Poor Boy Blues” from the prior album, and unfortunately ends the album on a mediocre note, guitar pyrotechnics notwithstanding.
Kotzen didn’t last long with Poison. “Strike Up the Band”? More like “Break Up the Band”, when Richie started fooling around with the fiancé of Rikki Rockett. He was immediately fired upon discovery, and replaced by Blues Saraceno, another highly rated shredder. The ironic thing was that Blues Saraceno was in the running for the guitar slot in the first place, but the band chose Kotzen. Saraceno recorded the strong Crack A Smile CD, an intentional return to good-time Poison rock, but were dropped by the record label before a release. That’s a whole other story, with six years of delays and bootlegs before the album was out, eventually leading to a reunion with C.C. DeVille.
Fortunately, Native Tongue remains a reminder of a brief period in Poison where they were momentarily among the best acts in hard rock. No shit.