Atlantic

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Cool Kids (1983)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin – part 2 in his KIX series

KIX – Cool Kids (1983 Atlantic)

Coming off the heels of their unsuccessful debut album, Kix returned to the studio with new producer Peter Solley to shell out what would be their most polarizing and least rocking album. Cool Kids is the most commercial album that Kix every recorded, pressured by Atlantic to deliver a hit after the failure of the debut to find an audience. This was 1983, just before Pyromania broke through the stratosphere to make melodic hard rock/heavy metal a viable commercial direction. Atlantic still had no idea how to market Kix, and also didn’t know what direction to push them in order to find an audience. For this album, they decided to push them towards the new wave aspects of their sound, forcing them to work with outside writers for the first time.

The production of Cool Kids is much more slick and pop-orientated than the rough and ready production of the debut. It’s obvious that the band was pressured into this direction, as a lot of the time they don’t sound comfortable in their own skin. Signer Steve Whiteman’s voice lacks its usual power and grit on this recording, likely being asked to hold back for the songs by producer Peter Solley. Another notable change to the band’s sound is the presence of new guitar player Brad Divens, temporarily replacing Ronnie “10/10” Younkins. This is the only Kix album to feature Divens, as Younkins rejoined them by their next album Midnight DynamiteCool Kids lacks the fiery and spontaneous edge of Younkins’ playing, and contributes even more to the album feeling sterile.

Despite these flaws, this is still a Kix album. There are still enjoyable moments throughout the record, quite a few actually. They are however, overwhelmed by the material that doesn’t work on this album. Opener “Burning Love” doesn’t introduce the set of tunes with a lot of power. Kix always has energy, but it seems to be counteracted with the sterile production and addition of keyboards. That being said, it’s a perfectly serviceable melodic rock tune, but there’s nothing genuinely exceptional about it. With it’s bouncy keyboards and lazy riff, it doesn’t sound much like Kix. This is one of the tunes that wasn’t written by the band. The title track follows it in a similarly sleek fashion, but is ultimately more enjoyable because it is more guitar-driven, and the band’s natural energy pushes through much more. It was also written by outside writers, but it is a very catchy tune. I’d say it’s a great melodic rock song for the early ‘80s. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound much like Kix either.

After two tracks that fail to encompass the Kix sound, the first band-written track is up with “Love Pollution”. One of the only straight-up rockers on the disc, it’s also one of the best songs on the album. Written by Whiteman and Forsythe, the song burns along with a killer guitar riff and a lot of attitude, and accompanied by piano in the chorus that actually helps the song. A truly killer tune, one that I think represents the direction that this whole album should have gone in. It has a sound similar to that of the genre defying debut, but in a harder rocking vein. You can tell already that Kix wanted to toughen up their sound, though the shiny production doesn’t help that point across.

Next up is the outside penned “Body Talk” which used talk box three years before Bon Jovi, and also has one of the absolute worst music videos of all time. What the hell was the director thinking? Kix playing at what looks like a high school gym with only girls working out doing weird-ass synchronized exercise dances? Yeah, they really dropped the ball with this one. I find it strange that with this promotion Atlantic was confused about why the band weren’t doing well commercially. Luckily for them, Kix were still obscure enough that hardly anyone has ever seen that video. As for the song, it’s an uncharacteristic new wave workout, and a co-lead vocal between Steve Whiteman and drummer Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfont. It’s a catchy pop tune, but it couldn’t be further from the Kix sound. Atlantic definitely missed the mark by making them record this one.

And if you didn’t think they could fall further into Flock of Seagulls territory, we get “Loco-Emotion”, penned by bass player Donnie Purnell. Steve Whiteman gets to play saxophone on this song, and for the verses it’s easily the weirdest Kix song ever. While the chorus contains a get up and go kick in the pants, the verses are just off-putting. Their first album used Devo primarily for what little new wave influence they had, but now they were courting the sound of several shittier new wave bands. Fortunately, from here on out everything was penned by the band, and there is nothing as jarring as this song.

However, a lot of these songs penned by Purnell are strange, and not up to his usual standards. “Mighty Mouth” is a powerful rock tune that gets bogged down by a very awkward and annoying chorus with Whiteman screaming the title. It seems a bit too cheeky for its own good, but is nothing compared to the campy “Nice on Ice” and the absolutely awful “Get Your Monkeys Out”. These songs lean hard on the bubblegum pop equation that was blended so successfully on albums before and after this with hard rock. Here, thanks to the shiny production, they sound cheesy and downright embarrassing. Thankfully, the album is redeemed with the two closing tunes.

Kix break the general rock standard of having the penultimate song be the worst on the album, by having the penultimate song be the best on the album. “For Shame” is an acoustic ballad years before “When the Children Cry”, or “Patience”, or “More than Words”. Beginning to see a trailblazing pattern? Yes, this is a heartfelt ballad that relies more on a nostalgic feeling than a sappy one. It uses the emotion of regret as the basis of the tune, which is an effective emotional connector. Whereas other love ballads seem derivative, this one seems genuine. The lyrics are very simple, but powerful. They detail summertime love that is lost with the passing of the seasons, with the two lovers unable to find each other afterwards Grease style. Thankfully, this song is stripped of the excess production that plagues most of the rest of the album, which keeps it sounding real, unlike other synthetic love tunes of the era. “For Shame” is a fantastic ballad, one that Kix would only surpass with a #11 hit on the Billboard charts (more on that when we get there).

They round the album out with the spiritual brother of “Love Pollution”. The other hard rocking song on the album, it features a writing credit from everyone in the band. It’s a speedy number the glides by ending the album on a high note. “Restless Blood” is an energetic kick in the pants to conclude the record with grace. Cool Kids is arguably the least essential Kixrecord, as it’s sound is the result of the label pressure. For the most part, it doesn’t represent the Kix sound, and a lot of the songs that do represent that sound, don’t get the equation as balanced as on the debut or any of their later albums. Thankfully, Kix would not let us down again. Atlantic finally realized that they had their hands on a hard rock band after this record tanked as bad as the first one. Our heroes would resurface again stronger than ever in 1985 with possibly the greatest album of their career. If this was the stepping stone that made Midnight Dynamite possible, so be it.

2.5/5 stars

 

Advertisements

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Kix (1981)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

KIX – Kix (1981 Atlantic)

Kix: one of the most beloved and influential rock bands of the time that only made it big after years of great albums, legendary live performances, and a work ethic that never failed them. Unfortunately, they only seemed to stay there for the album/tour cycle of their classic Blow My Fuse. While over the years they’ve returned to being more of a cult act than a mainstream rock group, the effect the left on rock culture shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s common knowledge that Bret Michaels liked the group enough that he decided to “borrow” some moves from singer Steve Whiteman. Anthony Corder from Tora Tora called Kix a huge influence on the development of their second album Wild America. Despite all their influence, the band never seemed to secure a position as one of the most popular acts of the day. Bad management, label indifference, and being a little ahead of their time prevented them from becoming the multi-platinum success they deserved to be on every one of their albums.

As far as being ahead of their time, this eponymous debut was released on a major label in 1981, when even Mötley Crüe were still grinding it out on Leathür Records. Kix were one of the first hard rock acts signed from the decade, but were hardly acknowledged for it. This debut album sold very poorly, and original prints are tough finds out in the wild today. 1981 may have been just too early for a release like this to find widespread success. It’s also possible that Atlantic didn’t know how to market the band, as their debut album is an interesting and masterful blend of hard rock, new wave, and bubblegum melodies that sound like they could have come from the 1950s.

Produced by Tom Allom (Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard), the album is given a very punchy and dynamic sound. The drums sound big and chunky, and everyone is audible in the mix. Anyone familiar with the Kix of the later ‘80s may find this release a bit jarring at first. There’s a certain quirkiness to the songs that isn’t as prevalent later on in their career. This would be the new wave sensibilities. Not all the guitars are overdriven in a way that you’d expect from a hard rock record. There are a number of songs that glide by with clean guitars, and still manage to rock with a ton of energy thanks to the contributions of drummer Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfont, and the contagious exuberance of singer Steve Whiteman. Of course, not all the record is this style, there are songs where the guitars have plenty of distortion, and they’re power loaded with midnight dynamite force.

The album opens with the scorcher and fan favorite “Atomic Bombs”. Starting with air raid sirens and some tasteful drum fills, the suspense of the song builds as a riff that Poison probably ripped off for “Look What the Cat Dragged In” tethers the song, and keeps it from completely going out of control. The first Kix song about blowing things up (a favorite topic of these Maryland hicks), it sets the tone for the album. It’s a relentless hard rock number with dynamics, and a nice solo that manages to create a feeling of the impending chaos of fallout. Opening with a rocker was a good choice; it gets people’s attention so that they’ll be more open-minded about what’s to come.

“Love at First Sight” is the first of the quirky Kix tunes. It’s a bouncy new wave influenced song, without any keyboards. If the thought of new wave scares you, it really shouldn’t because it’s so skillfully blended with these songs. It’s more Devo than it is Flock of Seagulls, and it shouldn’t turn off anyone even if they don’t enjoy new wave. The song gets a kick in the ass from guitarists Ronnie “10/10” Younkins and Brian Forsythe, as the distortion kicks in and the guitar solo gives the song the kick it needs to succeed. They were never the flashiest or greatest players of the ‘80s, but they were melodically wise, and knew what fit the song.

At this point in the record we get yet another change of pace, the ‘50s heart throb tune “Heartache”. With a bubblegum melody bound to get stuck in your head, that goddamn Kix band gives another change of pace. Rarely do audiences get this much diversity from a record of any genre. Kix would never release another album as eclectic as this one. Bass player Donnie Purnell locks in perfectly with the guitars and drums to give this tune an infectious energy that seems to fuel this entire album. The song builds with the addition of more guitars. The band has mastered dynamics, and knows just how to play them for the benefit of the song. The album is filled with tunes that blend each of these styles, some in which they are blended so seamlessly it’s impossible to pick what style is dominant. Take “The Itch”, the riff and song structure sounds similar to the underrated AC/DC tune “What’s Next to the Moon”. They’ve somehow taken that song structure and turned it on its head. Giving it breezy rock verses that build in intensity until the chorus which delivers another catchy melody complete with claps and gang backing vocals. The blend of styles shown on this album is seriously impressive for such a young group.

In case that wasn’t impressive enough, Kix closes the album with concert favorite “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” (not an Alice Cooper cover). It’s a hard rock tune that lasts seven minutes, featuring the infamous rant from Steve Whiteman, complete with crowd noise. Steve is upset because the woman he’s been seducing has puked all over his floor. That’s a big mistake. Don’t puke on Steve Whiteman’s floor. Go outside and do that. The subject matter is juvenile, but this is rock and roll. It closes the album on a fast tempo upbeat note. Every song on here could be considered upbeat, no ballads, the energy never lets up.

As the album finishes a look at the liner notes reveals that this is the only Kix album in which they weren’t pressured to work with outside writers (at least of the ones on Atlantic). It can be concluded that this album is the purest distillation of the Kix sound. While I like some of their more hard rocking albums later down the line better, this album is interesting because of the fact that it and its much lesser follow up Cool Kids (the only Kix album I’m not overly fond of), contain a new wave style that the band would never return to. It’s interesting hearing the young Kix and what their original vision is. Some people consider this the best Kix album. Not me, but it’s still pretty damn good.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Winger – The Very Best Of (2001)

WINGER – The Very Best Of (2001 Atlantic/Rhino)

Winger broke up in ’94, but reunited in 2001.  Part of the reunion entailed new music.  Before they finally released a new album (Winger IV), they tested the waters with one new song on The Very Best of Winger.  Yes indeed, you had to buy a “greatest hits” to get the new song.  At least Winger also gave you a Japanese bonus track for your money too.

New tune “On the Inside” was written for Pull (their third album and last before breakup) but recorded for Very Best Of.  It’s a chunky, heavy tune with splashes of anthemic keyboard in the chorus.  It really underlines that Winger could write and play with integrity when they wanted to.  Reb Beach’s solo is unorthodox and outside the box.  “Hell to Pay” is listed as an outtake, but it was actually released as a Japanese bonus track to Pull.  Stuff like this saves collectors for shelling out mucho dinero for a Japanese import.  Good sassy tune, and listen for that scorching outro.

Pull was a record that never got a shot, so it’s OK that the first chunk of tunes are from that album.  It deserved a second chance.  These are standout songs:  “Blind Revolution Mad” smokes white hot, and with depth.  “Down Incognito” has a bright, memorable chorus contrasted with groovy verses.  90s-style riffing worked perfectly on the track “Junkyard Dog”, a seven-minute thrill ride through different textures.  Winger were not playing it simple.  Even their ballads from that era have more heft.  “Spell I’m Under” has edge under those layered melodies.  Few songs are as starkly lovely as “Who’s the One”.

The Very Best of Winger takes a dive after the Pull material.  The CD is in reverse chronological order, which almost never works.  Yes, it highlights the most current sounding music, but at the cost of consistency.  Winger II: In the Heart of the Young was, let’s be honest, not good.  The ballads were sappier and the rockers too cheesy.  Only “Rainbow in the Rose” really fits on this set.  Past the dreck, the four singles from album #1 are included.  This means the CD at least ends on an up, though the ballad “Headed for a Heartbreak” is a bit anti-climatic.

Go for The Very Best of Winger if:

a) you want to check this band out, or

b) you want the rarities.

Your needs might be met by just buying Pull.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Deep Cuts: The Best of the Ballads (2000)

MR. BIG – Deep Cuts: The Best of the Ballads (2000 Atlantic)

Although 15 tracks of ballads is more than enough for anyone, Mr. Big’s compilation Deep Cuts has value to collectors.  A number of these songs are rare or previously unreleased versions.

Most of Mr. Big’s hits are ballads, so that’s why this thing exists.  All the important ones are present:  “To Be With You”, “Wild World” (Cat Stevens cover), “Just Take My Heart”, and lots of deeper cuts too.  The selling point of this album is the rare stuff, and there’s more than average.  “Had Enough”, “Promise Her the Moon” and “Just Take My Heart” are all re-recorded with Richie Kotzen on guitar (who was in Mr. Big at the time).  That’s fine; at least they had a reason to do it.  “Promise Her the Moon” isn’t vastly different, but “Had Enough” and “Just Take My Heart” have slightly new arrangements.  “Had Enough” is much more fleshed out, and sometimes even a little funky. That’s the Kotzen influence.

There are also two “new” songs, one amusingly called “Where Are They Now?”  It’s a cool song with a decent chorus, though it certainly can’t compete with the big hits.  It could have used more Kotzen.  The other newbie, “I’ll Leave It Up to You” sounds more like Richie, and more like a laid back blues.  Finally, there is a B-side from the Kotzen era:  “You Don’t Have to Be Strong”.  This one (from “Superfantastic”, which is also on this CD)  is the best of the bunch, not least because it’s a duet with Eric Martin and Richie Kotzen.  This is the kind of stuff that is nice to have.  It beats hunting down an obscure CD single to get it.

Deep Cuts is rounded out by a whole bunch of classic ballads from the Paul Gilbert albums.  And yes, “To Be With You” is the original version, so if you’re buying the CD for one song (shame on you!) then at least you get what you wanted.

Still…it’s a CD with 15 ballads in a row.  Not the kind of thing that gets played all the way through in a single sitting.

2/5 stars

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Get Over It (1999)

MR. BIG – Get Over It (1999 Atlantic)

Mr. Big broke up in 1996, and reformed in 1999 without Paul Gilbert.  It wasn’t personal; he just wasn’t available.  He was working with a revamped Racer X, and his solo albums were popular in Japan.  In a stroke of genius, Mr. Big tapped a contemporary of Gilbert from his Shrapnel records days — Richie Kotzen.  Kotzen, like Mr. Big, was popular, could shred, and could write commercial music.  Kotzen has a distinct soul/blues vibe that he introduced to Mr. Big along with his own vocals.

The resultant Mr. Big album, Get Over It, was an amalgam of the two artists.  Different, but still a good fit.  Leadoff track “Electrified” is almost like a new band, based on the quality of the old.  Kotzen, like Gilbert, can shred – check out “Hiding Place”.  He just does it with more blues.  He also sings co-lead vocals on “Static”, the only Kotzen solo writing credit.  With him and Eric Martin in the same band, you get two of the most soulful hard rockers on Earth in one place at one time!

The song that, in past days, would have been the “bit hit” is a track called “Superfantastic”.  This campfire rock track recalls the good old days, but the bluesy stuff is more interesting.  Kotzen pours on the slide for “A Rose Alone”, which sounds like an old Shaw/Blades tune.  “Try to Do Without It” is a delightful confection of soul and bluesy guitar.

Get Over It lacks in one way.  Mr. Big albums are usually peppered with many unforgettable standout tracks throughout.  Get Over It only has a handful of those, stacked near the beginning.  It’s an enjoyable listen throughout, with no dull or skipable moments, but it’s missing those high points.  The songs you remember for days after.  Instead, Get Over It plays like cool bluesy (and sometimes funky) background CD.

3.25/5 stars

#662: Wingers of Destiny

DOUBLE FEATURE! Check out Deke’s Winger story at Stick It In Your Ear!

GETTING MORE TALE #662:  Wingers of Destiny

A highschool guy named Rob Petersen recommended Winger to me. Rob was one of the only kids with long hair. I was so jealous of him. He had the Rick Allen curls and everything. Girls thought he was cute. I thought maybe some of his cool could rub off on me. Luckily I sat next to him in Mr. Lightfoot’s history class.

The year was 1989 and the easiest way for me to check out new bands was via the Pepsi Power Hour on MuchMusic.

I recorded the music video for “Seventeen”, which was OK, but didn’t particularly stand out.  Kip Winger’s abs did.  Towards the end of the video, he did this weird thrusty-dance with his bass.  This is memorable to me because the tape that “Seventeen” was on, was also used for a school video project.  I made a music video for “Nothing But A Good Time” by Poison with friends, for a school award.  I recorded my copy on the same tape as “Seventeen” — immediately after it, actually.  When we presented the video to the film teacher, she caught the tail end of “Seventeen”, and Kip’s thrust.  “Oh,” I heard her comment, and I sensed it was more disgust than titillation.

Kip Winger mid-thrust

Despite their image, Winger possessed a rare rock pedigree.  Classically trained bassist and singer Charles “Kip” Winger was fresh from Alice Cooper’s band, as was keyboardist Paul Taylor.  Kip also performed on Twisted Sister’s Love is for Suckers LP in 1987, with future bandmate Reb Beach.  Most impressively, drummer Rod Morgenstein was an alumnus of Steve Morse’s Dixie Dregs.  Yet all these massive players went and made a commercial hard rock album with, let’s face it, pretty juvenile lyrics at times.

It’s hard not to be critical of Winger for this.  Knowing what these guys are capable of, the debut album Winger seems like pandering.  They did sneak in a few progressive hints, such as a string quartet on “Hungry”, but the impression was that they were just another hard rock band with big hair and candycane hooks.  They were underachieving, from a certain point of view.

Winger was in the batch of the first CDs I ever got, for Christmas of 1989.  This was based almost entirely on Rob Petersen’s raving.  Another reason I chose it was the “CD bonus track”!  One of the incentives for buying a CD player was to finally get songs that were only on the CD release.  I had mixed impressions.  The first “side” was decent but the second was a little filler-heavy.

I’m sad to admit this, but Winger’s version of “Purple Haze” was the first time I ever heard the song.  Ozzy’s version was the second.  Go ahead, judge me.

Winger could have taken it further on their second album.  In a way, they did:  progressive songs and complex rhythms stood alongside the pop rock tracks.  While they advanced in that regard, they took a step backwards in another.  Some songs were even dumber:  “Can’t Get Enough” for example, was a transparent re-write of “Seventeen”, and the ballads were dreck.  Worst of all was Kip’s very unnecessary rapping on “Baptized by Fire”.

Two songs, “Rainbow in the Rose” and “In the Heart of the Young” (the title track) were so far above and beyond the pack, they could have come from a different album.  These two epics drip of the kind of progressive rock you know these guys can play.  Yet they kept it radio accessible, somehow, even while Rod Morgenstein is playing rhythms my brain can barely compute.

While Winger II charted higher and sold as well as the first, 12 months later it was hopelessly outdated by the birth of grunge.  Winger then fell victim to two of the 90s greatest antiheroes, Beavis and Butt-Head.  A black Winger shirt was worn by nerd character Stewart, and the band were repeatedly mocked.  This eventually killed Winger off as a business.  Gigs dried up.  Fortunately for fans, Kip Winger and Mike Judge of Beavis and Butt-Head recently had a make-up session. Even Kip admitted, “Winger was a band that was popular for some of the wrong reasons, man.”

The third album, Pull, is a reference to skeet shooting.  Kip knew that for all the chances they had, they may as well throw the album into the air and take shots at it.  “Pull!”

It was a lose-lose situation and both Winger and the public lost by Pull‘s commercial failure.  Keyboardist Paul Taylor had left, and so Pull features less of the instrument and a far heavier sound.  Taylor was eventually replaced by John Roth, a guitarist.  The message was pretty clear.  Pull featured some of Winger’s best tracks:  “Down Incognito”, “Blind Revolution Mad”, “Junkyard Dog”, and “Who’s the One”.  Had Pull come out in 1990 instead of 1993, things would have gone very differently.  Instead, Winger broke up.

The happy news is that like many bands, Winger reunited (the John Roth lineup occasionally with Paul Taylor as a fifth member), and started putting out albums again.  Good ones, too.  Their last Better Days Comin’ is pretty great.

As further proof of Winger’s greatness, Reb Beach went from there to Alice Cooper, completing the circle.  Winger, after all, was originally founded by two ex-Cooper players.  He was then picked to replace George Lynch in Dokken.  And Kip?  His 30 minute symphony “Ghosts” should speak for itself.

Those who are curious but sceptical should check out Winger’s Pull, and the albums that followed.  Go ahead and wing it!

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Big, Bigger, Biggest! The Best Of (1996)

MR. BIG – Big, Bigger, Biggest! The Best Of (1996 Atlantic)

The mid-90s were the time that every hard rock band in the world released a greatest hits.  Why?  Most of them either split, got dropped by the label, or both.  Tesla, King’s X, Slaughter, Extreme, and Mr. Big are among the sidelined bands whose labels released a greatest hits mid-decade.

Big’s at least had four unreleased tracks, topping off 12 familiar cuts from their first four albums.  Three of the songs were newly recorded.  Unfortunately, the label stacked a bunch of ballads and made this disc really hard to finish in one sitting.  The running order and track selection is a little wonky.

“Addicted to that Rush” is the jet-speed opener, as it should be.  Big’s 1989 debut was instrumentally thrilling but light on hits.  A so-so album track, “Rock & Roll Over” should probably have been left off.  Lean Into It (1991) was the big one.  “To Be With You” sits at track 4, because the CD is chronological, but the song has always worked better in the closing position.  Placing it at track 4 is anticlimactic.  Lean Into It spawned three more singles, all present:  “Green Tinted Sixties Mind“, “Just Take My Heart”, and “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy”.  This spurt of songs is a bit too soft.  Two are ballads, one a pop track, leaving only one to instrumentally smoke you.  That’s unfortunate because their cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” is next in the pack.  Though it is a fabulous and underappreciated cover, it’s too much mush at the start of the CD.

A buyer who picks this CD up as their first and only Mr. Big purchase will assume they are just another pop rock band.  Another Bon Jovi, another Warrant.  Though there are some serious moments of instrumental shreddery, that side of the band is too overlooked.  “Colorado Bulldog” from 1993’s Bump Ahead is about the only remaining song with that kind of force.  This is why suits shouldn’t compile CDs.  Their studio albums are more balanced.

Unfortunately, none of the four unreleased songs are spectacular.  The acoustic ballad “Seven Impossible Days” is from a Japanese EP called Japandemonium.  The other three are new recordings.  “Not One Night” is another acoustic ballad.  Sonically beautiful, but it’s too much saccharine.  “Unnatural” isn’t a ballad per se, but it is mostly acoustic (and features the lead vocals of guitarist Paul Gilbert).  “Stay Together”, which is a dead ringer for vintage Van Hagar, is probably the best of these four songs.

Big, Bigger, Biggest! The Best Of Mr. Big does not represent the Mr. Big that fans have known all these years.  Their favourite songs are rarely the ballads.  Too many killer deep cuts are missing, and, I hate to sound like a broken record, there are too many ballads!

2.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Bump Ahead (1993)

MR. BIG – Bump Ahead (1993 Atlantic)

Living up to Lean Into It was never going to be an easy thing to do.  By the time 1993 rolled around, it didn’t even matter.  Mr. Big were going to be ignored no matter what they did.

There are no giant leaps and bounds on Bump Ahead, but there are enough decent rock thrills and ballads to call it a good album.  A lot of the heavy artillery is expended right on the first track, “Colorado Bulldog”.  An amped-up Van Halen shuffle is cranked to the max with the one and only Billy Sheehan pushing the whole thing on the bass.  It’s an insane affair of accelerated playing and a stomping riff.

“The Price You Gotta Pay” keeps it heavy, anchored by a patented Sheehan groove.  Eric Martin’s bluesy soul rasp gives the music accessibility, but there is plenty going on instrumentally too.  Fans of sheer playing will find plenty of challenging licks within.  Likewise, “The Whole World’s Gonna Know”.  It sounds like a redo of an old Talas song called “Smart Lady”, with a new improved chorus.  They lay down a granite groove on “Temperamental”.  Plenty of solid rock is to be heard here.

That said, let’s not kid ourselves.  Mr. Big made their money with ballads like “To Be With You”, and so they loaded the deck here with a few more.  “Promise Her the Moon” is sentimental, understated and classy.  The big one is Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”.  Mr. Big were not likely to blow it on a song this magnificent.  Their version is more lush than Stevens’, but is actually quite great.  They miss the mark on “Nothing But Love”; too syrupy with its guitar synth orchestra.  In a case of ballad overdose, there is a fourth:  “Ain’t Seen Love Like That”.  It’s one of those basic campfire ballads.  Good song, but not essential.

Bump Ahead has a bit more filler than preferred.  “What’s It Gonna Be” is fine funky rock, but the chorus is pedestrian.  They go a different direction on the psychedelic “Mr. Gone”.  Don’t forget this is the band that gave us “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind“, though “Mr. Gone” isn’t as perfect as that.

They close the album on the free cover “Mr. Big”, the song that gave them their name.  The grind of “Mr. Big” ends the album on an upstanding note, but damn, they should have cut one of those ballads doncha think?  The fact is, Mr. Big were simply not going to have a hit with a ballad in 1993.  Wasn’t gonna happen.  The Japanese edition had a bonus track called “Long Way Down”, which wasn’t that outstanding but perhaps should have been included in the main tracklist at the expense of a ballad.

3/5 stars.

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Hey Man (1996)

MR. BIG – Hey Man (1996 Atlantic)

With the recent passing of Pat Torpey, it’s definitely time for some fresh listens to classic Mr. Big.  Their most underrated album might be their fourth, Hey Man, on which Torpey had three writing credits.  1991’s Lean Into It is generally considered the highwater mark, but Hey Man boasted songs just as strong and many just as memorable.   If only MTV wasn’t avoiding Mr. Big and bands of their era like the bubonic plague.

Mr. Big were always ferocious musicians, and formed as a “supergroup” of such.  The point of Mr. Big was for these mega-instrumentalists to write some commercial rock, and that has been their modus operandi on every album.  When Mr. Big formed, Torpey already boasted two albums:  Ted Nugent’s If You Can’t Lick ‘Em…Lick ‘Em, and the supergroup Impelliteri.  Billy Sheehan was already worshipped for his work with David Lee Roth and before that, Talas.  Guitarist Paul Gilbert had established himself as a wunderkind with the Shrapnel band, Racer X.  The key ingredient to Mr. Big is the blue-eyed soul of singer Eric Martin.  He had a two album solo career before he made the unlikely jump to supergroup.

It’s the rocking side of Mr. Big that hits the ground running on first track “Trapped in Toyland”.  Heavier and grooving more than usual, Mr. Big poured the gas on the fire right off the bat.  It’s a huge impression.  Gilbert wrote this smoker with his old Racer X singer Jeff Martin, and Russ Parish of Fight (and now Steel Panther).  That would explain the heavy!  What really nails the heavy sound is the combination of Billy Sheehan’s bass rumble in conjunction with Torpey’s smashing beat.

The most stunning of all the songs is the second, a bonafide Mr. Big classic called “Take Cover”.  It simmers under an infrared pulse of drum beats and understated chords, and then bursts wide open on the choruses. It’s triumphant songwriting and a fine example of how musicianship and songcraft can work together.  It is one of their career best.

“Jane Doe” goes funky a-la “The Crunge”.  Eric Martin pushes it into soul on the choruses.  A couple ballads follow, one acoustic and one darker.  “Goin’ Where the Wind Blows” fills the slot of past Mr. Big acoustic ballads, something that had become compulsory after the success of “To Be With You”.  The more interesting song is “The Chain” which has a sombre edge.

There is an undeniable twang to “Where Do I Fit In?”, so much that it could easily be mistaken for Tesla.  It’s a solid side closer, though “sides” were becoming meaningless in 1996.  Hey Man has never seen a vinyl release, and the dying cassette version was the only one with “sides”.

Eric Martin makes it soulful on “If That’s What it Takes”, which doesn’t deserve to be called a ballad so we won’t.  It serves as a reminder of how these musicians can adapt to any situation.  The Paul Gilbert who plucks these earthy chords is the same guy who shred all over Lean Into It.  Pat Torpey turns into a human steamroller on “Out of the Underground”.  It’s as heavy metal as Mr. Big have been.  Then they go “Dancin’ Right Into the Flame” on a pretty cool ballad.  It has a bit more finesse than the usual.

You can tell immediately that “Mama D.” was written by Paul Gilbert, because it has one of those squirrly Gilbert guitar licks that only he writes.  To close the album, they return to a heavy soul-funk on “Fool Us Today”.  Pat Torpey is rock solid and a key ingredient to a fun closer.

Track for track, Hey Man can go up against most other Mr. Big albums.  They had a temporary breakup after this CD, a result of it being criminally ignored.

4/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: George Carlin – What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988)

GEORGE CARLIN – What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988 Atlantic)

Why do we still look to the wisdom of George Carlin today in memes and videos?  Because his comedy was timeless.  What worked in 1988 is still topical in 2017.  On the government, Carlin blasts: “They’re against street crime, unless the street is Wall Street!”  Still true, just change the names.  Listen and you might even learn something, but you’ll be too busy laughing to realise it.

It’s actually incredible how applicable this 30 year old comedy show is.  Freedom of choice, freedom of speech, government telling you what you can and can’t hear.  I don’t think George Carlin would think much of the year 2017.  What is most appealing about George Carlin’s comedy is simply how he observes the absurdities of life.  If he makes you uncomfortable, that’s too bad, because the rest of us are laughing.

It’s not all topical observations.  Sometimes it’s helpful advice.  “Here’s one to try.  Go in to a gift shop, and ask for your gift.”  You’ll also enjoy his list of people he could do without.  “A proctologist with poor depth perception.”   True, true.  “Anyone who mentions Jesus more than 300 times in a two minute conversation.”  Yes, yes.  “A brain surgeon with ‘born to lose’ tattooed on his hands.”  Dear God yes.  And…”couples whose children’s names all start with the same initial.”  Say no more, my sides hurt!

The last 20 minutes of the album is dedicated to “More Stuff About Cars and Driving”.  From this, I gather there are many toll roads in the state of New Jersey.  Carlin goes after bumper stickers too.  Imagine what he’d think of today’s window sticker families!

Not for everybody, but possibly just what you need.

3.5/5 stars