AEROSMITH – Nine Lives (1997 Columbia, European version)
By popular demand, here is a look at Aerosmith’s Nine Lives, an often overlooked and sometimes forgotten record overshadowed by bigger hits.
Aerosmith were in trouble. In 1995, after completing a massive amount of work to support Get a Grip and Big Ones, drummer Joey Kramer suffered a nervous breakdown. It was a traumatic experience for the musician, who had conquered his drug demons long ago and thought he was otherwise healthy. Aerosmith went ahead with new producer Kevin Shirley, replacing longtime collaborator Bruce Fairbairn who was busy with Van Halen, The Cranberries, and INXS. A session drummer (Steve Ferrone) filled in, with the intention that when Joey returned, they could finish the album with him. Kramer did return, perhaps stronger than ever, and re-recorded all of Ferrone’s drums himself. According to Joey, it made all the difference to him, to make the album sound like Aerosmith.
Although the first single, “Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)” was pretty blasé, the album itself is very strong. I liked it all but immediately, bought it, and then bought it again when I found the European version with the bonus track “Falling Off”. The domestic version was “enhanced” for PC use, with some kind of game where you could play along to Aerosmith songs. I never even tried that, and I ditched the original when I found the European version. I found it in Calgary, Alberta, of all places.
A raucous opening is what you need to set the scene, and “Nine Lives” fits the bill. That’s Joey on drums alright, as he has this steady, heavy beat that is quintessentially Joey Kramer. There’s Tyler, vintage sassy and welcoming you to the party. Over on guitar, Brad Whitford and Joe Perry are sounding brilliant thanks to some crunchy, crisp production from Kevin Shirley. As always Tom Hamilton on the bass isn’t afraid to play all over the neck without getting in the way. In other words, for all appearances, Aerosmith were as strong as ever.
Listening to the dreadfully titled “Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)” again reminds me that I never disliked the song. It was only the title (and the video directed by Michael Bay) I found silly. Otherwise it’s a fine example of horn-enhanced mid-tempo 90’s Aero-rock. It has a sleezy grind to it, but it’s not particularly distinguishable from any similar songs on past Aerosmith records. It’s what they do, and although there are plenty better tunes, I suppose there is an Aero-niche that needs to be filled and here it is. Another thing they had to do was the sappy ballad with strings and so here is “Hole in My Soul”, another single. I think track 3 is a little early for ballad.
I remember walking into a record store with T-Rev one afternoon (I think Sunrise) and they were playing an early pre-release promo of “Taste of India”. I intensely dug the heavy groove, and the exotic spices thrown in. “Holy shit,” I said to Trevor, “this is really good.” He wasn’t as enthusiastic, but I think the groove here is impossible to resist. For latter-day Aerosmith, “Taste of India” represents one of those peaks, kind of like tunes such as “Kings and Queens” were for the early years. It’s adventurous and I’m a sucker for those guitars that sound like sitars. There is also sārangī on this track, performed by Ramesh Mishra who was a student of Ravi Shankar. I will return back to my original point though — the heavy groove here is the key. It’s all about that unstoppable steamroller of a rhythm. You don’t hear Aerosmith groove this heavy very often anymore. Back when I was at the Record Store, I did a brief paragraph review of this record for our store newsletter. I praised the song then too, and my enthusiasm has not diminished in the slightest.
“Full Circle” is an interesting track, a ballad that sounds a bit like something you’d sing in a big group on New Year’s Eve. “Time, don’t let it slip away, raise your drinking glass, here’s to yesterday.” It sounds a bit like an old Beatles ballad, interpreted by Aerosmith. It’s just a stunning little track, different from a lot of the Aero-noise that filled later albums. But “Something’s Gotta Give”, and we need an adrenaline-filled Aero-ass-kicker next. “Something’s gotta give! Does the noise in my head bother you?” Tyler’s harmonica solo is scorching hot, I’m sure his lips were burning. Then it’s a smokey, jazzy (with muted trumpet) intro to “Ain’t That a Bitch”. I don’t think I’d wanna call this a ballad, but maybe a slow Aero-burner? Using the word “ballad” sells the song short because it has more to it than that, even though there’s those strings again! Then the horns return for the “The Farm”, an inessential but dramatic song. This is about where the break between side 1 and side 2 would come, so I consider this song to be an apt side closer.
Aerosmith kick it into gear and “Crash” for a breakneck blaze of a song. Perry’s solo is incandescent. Kramer’s there in the back, locked into Tom Hamilton driving this big beast called Aerosmith forward as fast as it will go. Tyler’s screaming “I’m losing my mind, losing my mind, losing my mind!” while the boys in the back are jamming hard. The second half of this song is truly as good and wreckless as Aerosmith can get. Just top drawer rawk n’ roll.
So of course they bring you down from that “Crash” with a ballad, called “Kiss Your Past Goodbye”. This is by the books, and strictly just an off-the-shelf stock Aero-ballad. There is a lull in the album right about here, as it stalls towards the end. Another single, the pretty dreadful “Pink”, takes up a solid 4 minutes of your listening time. I had a customer at the Record Store, the “Barefoot DJ”, a really annoying fucker who was persistently looking for this damned song. But he refused to pay $11.99 for the Aerosmith album it was on, so he didn’t get it. Sucked to be him, I guess.
Joe Perry redeems the album (on the European version only) with his song “Falling Off”, for which he handles lead vocals. It’s nothing special, but it has an old-style rock integrity to it that centers us back to where we should be with this album. Fortunately it’s followed by another strong song, “Attitude Adjustment” which has a hint of a twang to it. It’s still nice an’ heavy, which you will have noticed by now is a continuing theme on this album. Sure there are lots of ballads, but also lots of kinds of heavy. “Attitude Adjustment” is rhythmically hard-edged, and Joe Perry’s slide guitar always hits you square right in the guts.
“Fallen Angels” brings the ballad count to four. However, this ballad has integrity. It is a long ballad, adorned with strings and all the fixings, but it also has the feeling and drama that preceding ballads lacked. The exotic sounds of India return to close the song and the album, going “Full Circle” as Aerosmith said earlier.
Lastly, I think Nine Lives has some of the best album artwork of any Aerosmith album in the CD age. I know that the original cover art with the snakes and the dancing cat was offensive to some of the Hindu faith. They then issued an alternative, revised version for retailers who wanted it, and it was just as cool anyway. Each page of the booklet features artwork that “pulls back” further giving you a wider perspective of the actual scene. This culminates with a zombie Aerosmith on the last page. The best thing about the revised cover art is that it adds one more picture to this sequence of “pulling back”. Now you can see the zombie Aerosmith are just a picture on a T-shirt on the same cat, who is strapped to a circus knife throwing wheel! I wouldn’t mind getting that version of the CD (cheap) just to have the final picture in the sequence.
This version of Nine Lives has 14 songs. If you think of an album in old-school terms, you realize that’s about four or five songs more than you used to get on a record. If you trimmed a few of these songs off, as if you were releasing a vinyl album in the 1970’s, imagine how tight it could have been. With the ballady filler, I’d give it: