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REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Hard Skool (2022 Nightrain club clear 7″)

GUNS N’ ROSES – Hard Skool (2022 Geffen 7″ Nightrain club clear vinyl EP)

Back in February, Guns N’ Roses released the Hard Skool EP (or single, or whatever!), containing the first two new Guns songs since 2008’s Chinese Democracy.  With five tracks total (two studio, three live) over three separate formats (CD, cassette, 7″), it was already a pretty good listen.  Axl’s voice has adapted to singing these demanding songs, 35 years after.  But there was always the promise of more in June 2022, and now it has come.

Members of the Guns N’ Roses Nightrain club received a brand new Hard Skool release on clear vinyl, with one exclusive live track added.  The cover art colour has been changed from red to dark charcoal grey, and a “Nightrain Limited-Edition Clear” notation has been added to the front.  This wasn’t cheap, costing $60 Canadian ($45 US) dollars to join.  There are other perks but really, the truth of the matter is I paid $60 for one song.

They had better not reissue this track!

The new exclusive song is “Shadow Of Your Love”, a recent live version recorded with Axl, Slash, Duff, Dizzy Reed, Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer, and Melissa Reese.  If you cast your minds back to the recent Appetite For Destruction super deluxe edition, “Shadow Of Your Love” was released as a single and it got a bit of airplay.  Live with the new version of the band, it does recapture that Appetite vibe and let’s face it, the song was possibly superior to a couple tunes that did make the final album.  You can hear Melissa on backing vocals, a touch that isn’t on early live versions of the song.  That backing vocal part is present on the studio version from the third disc on the Appetite box, but not the others included.  It’s cool that they’ve brought it back.  This version is just as fast as the old ones too.  It’s awesome to hear Frank Ferrer playing the drum part originally recorded by Steven Adler.  As for Axl, he adapts.  This is one of the most high and raspy of the original Guns repertoire.  Axl delivers it smooth without the rasp and still manages to get his voice way, way up there.  Say what you want about Axl Rose, he’s sounding better than many of his contemporaries.  Of course the real treat is just hearing Slash wail on it, as he should.

As for the other songs on the single; we’ve discussed them before so we won’t spend much more time on them.  “Hard Skool” is a Chinese Democracy outtake that has been reworked with Slash and Duff McKagan.  The duo have writing credits on “Hard Skool” along with Axl Rose and former members Robin Finck, Josh Freese, Tommy Stinson and Paul “Huge” Tobias.  Formerly known as “Jackie Chan”, this song comes closest to capturing the classic Guns vibe – think Illusions era GN’R.  Slash imbues the riff with his trademark snakelike style, and Axl is in full-scream mode on the powerful chorus.  The cowbell brings us back to the 80s a bit, but the experimental solo section is more modern.  The other new/old song “ABSUЯD” is much more Chi-Dem, and more divisize.  Formerly known as “Silkworms”, Guns started playing “ABSUЯD” live after a 20 year absence last year as a surprise.  Axl’s voice is pretty strange here, sounding a bit muppet-ish.  (The screaming portion sounds like tape.)  This live track will take some getting used to.  It’s not that Axl’s voice is bad just…different than what you’re used to.

Both vinyl releases came with a sticker.  This fan club edition also comes with a Nightrain 2022 pin.  The pin comes packaged in a little mini-folder.  It is made of metal and heavy for a pin.  Made for a jacket, not a shirt.  For a higher tier, you could sign up for four pins and a hoodie.  But I really only wanted to shell out for the exclusive track.

You can’t blame Axl for wanting to get some of these old songs out since he laboured for years over them.  It’s fitting that only now with Slash and Duff back in the band, the songs are “finished”.  Keep the releases coming guys.  It doesn’t have to be an album.  It just has to be Guns.

4/5 stars

All cautions made
Every chance was given
No effort spared to save what we had
All in good faith
I would not hesitate
To extend myself and lend you my hand

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

As tempers fade
And lies forgiven
No cause embraced could break what we had
In its place
A storm is lifting
I would’ve thought you could be more of a man

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

“Sister Havana” by Urge Overkill on the Sunday Song Spotlight

Here’s a blast from the past for you 90s retro rockers! From their 1993 breakthrough album Saturation, it’s “Sister Havana” by Chicago’s Urge Overkill, and what a treat it is.  Did the Darkness rip off this riff for “Get Your Hands Off My Woman”?  Or were they at least inspired by it?  It’s that kind of drive.

With lyrics like, “I’m watchin’ you and Fidel Castro in the sand, assassin!” and “Girl, you got to roll, Sister Havana, Overthrow, Sister Havana,” I have to wonder if this song was banned in Cuba!  Singer Nash Kato seems to be urging (pun intended) a girl to assassinate Fidel Castro with lines like “Come around to my way of thinkin'”.  It’s a fun song from the days of yore when people didn’t get as worked up over some words.  Kato said, “We didn’t have any firm stance on America’s relationship with Cuba, but it sang well and sounded like a hook. There was no political commitment.”  He was right.

In fact the line “Come around to my way of thinkin'” was meant to be an invitation to would be fans hearing Urge for the first time on their major label debut.  Another fun fact was, when the band were first working on what would become “Sister Havana” in 1991, they were on tour with Nirvana since both bands were signed to Geffen.  At one soundcheck in Europe, Nirvana sat in with Urge Overkill as they hashed out the tune.  Nirvana had an impact on Urge Overkill who desired to write something simple that connected.

The music video is also a hoot, featuring the band getting parking tickets, cruising in a convertible, a swamp boat, and jamming.  Enjoy it below – “Sister Havana”.

Come around to my way of thinkin’
Don’t you want to, want to get along?
Everyday just like a vacation with you
When I’m watchin’ you and Fidel Castro in the sand, kissin’!
Girl, you got to roll
Sister Havana
Overthrow
Sister Havana
She’s comin’ on like a bicycle army
Everybody’s waitin’ for the man to come down from the tower
Every day is just like a vacation with you layin’ right here now
I’m watchin’ you and Fidel Castro in the sand, assassin!
Girl, you got to roll
Sister Havana
Overthrow
Sister Havana
Sister Havana
Sister Havana
Sister Havana
Sister Havana
I don’t care what they say, no!
(There’s no time to lose)
We could have a holiday, yeah
But there’s no time (there’s no time to lose)
For hesitation
There’s no time (there’s no time to lose)
No time for waitin’
There’s no time (there’s no time to lose)
So let’s take the time and get it on today
So girl, come on, you got to roll
Sister Havana
Overthrow
Sister Havana
Sister Havana (sister Havana)
Sister Havana (sister Havana)
Sister Havana
Come around to my way of thinkin’
Come around to my way of thinkin’
Come around to my way of thinkin’
Well, come around, sister

REVIEW: Slash’s Snakepit – It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere (1995)

SLASH’S SNAKEPIT – It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere (1995 Geffen)

Somewhere in the multiverse is an alternate reality where Axl Rose did not reject Slash’s songs for the next Guns album.  In that version of history, the new Guns N’ Roses was not titled Chinese Democracy; perhaps it was called Back and Forth Again.  And it would have sounded a lot like It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, the debut album by Slash’s Snakepit that we received in our reality’s year 1995.

As it went down, Axl said “no” to the songs Slash had finished, so Slash put them out as his first solo album.  And then Axl wanted them back.  In 1994, on the VHS The Making of Estranged: Part 4 of Trilogy, you can hear Guns working on one of these songs.  In the background, the music that would eventually become Slash’s “Back and Forth Again” is playing with Axl whistling overtop.  In the alternate reality, somebody’s listening to it right now as a Guns N’ Roses song.  In ours, it will only be Slash’s Snakepit.

Although Slash was enthused about his new music, and was eager to make a raw bluesy rock n’ roll album, Axl had other plans.  Who was right in the end?  It’s hard not to see Axl’s point of view.  Slash’s 14 songs had just one hit and 13 fillers.  Most of the best GN’R tracks were not written by Slash; they were written by Izzy Stradlin.  Left to his own devices, Slash’s batch of songs here lack memorable hooks.

Let’s start on a positive note at least — the lead single “Beggars & Hangers-On”.  Written by Slash n’ Duff with lead singer Eric Dover, this is a song that any band from Skynyrd to the Crowes to Zeppelin to Guns N’ Roses would have been proud to play.  Check out that riff — it’s as regal as the blues gets.   Powerful and soulful aching vocals from Dover.  The chorus roars, bright and bold, and you could only imagine what Axl could have done with it.  Matt Sorum’s drums splash at all the right moments, in his trademark fashion.  It’s a damn perfect song.  And it made people really excited for the album that was to come, Guns or no Guns.

Well, there were some Guns.  Slash had been working with Matt Sorum and the recently fired Gilby Clarke.  On bass was Mike Inez from Alice in Chains.  Though not in the Snakepit lineup, Slash also imported Dizzy Reed and Ted “Zig Zag” Andreadis from GN’R.  With those players, it sure sounded like Guns.  Only Dover really differentiates them.  Dover…and the songs.

There are fragments of brilliance through the whole record.  The acoustic intro to “Neither Can I” for example.  The circular snaky riff to the manic “Be the Ball” (not to mention Slash’s lyrics, which seem to be his personal life philosophy).  The boogie-woogie of instrumental “Jizz Da Pit”.  The wicked Inez bass on on Gilby Clarke’s “Monkey Chow”.  The Aerosmith vibe to “I Hate Everybody (But You)”.

And it’s a long album.  70 minutes of solid rock without a lot of variation.  Which is one reason why Slash’s 14 songs wouldn’t have cut it for Guns in 1995.  Appetite for Destruction had a variety of different songs on it, even if all shared a go-for-the-throat ferocity.  Slash did get the straightforward live sounding rock album he desired.  The guitars sound absolutely thick and offer a hint of what Slash and Gilby would have sounded like together on an original Guns studio album (like naturals).

It’s just a damn shame Slash’s solo debut is so disappointing.  It bears witness that Axl might not have been wrong.  You could make a hell of a GN’R album* out of the best tracks its members came up with.  But this isn’t it.

2/5 stars

* Alternate 1995 Chinese Democracy:

  1. Chinese Democracy (GN’R)
  2. Beggars and Hangers-On (Slash)
  3. Better (GN’R)
  4. Dead Flowers (Gilby/Axl – Stones cover)
  5. I.R.S. (GN’R)
  6. Street of Dreams (GN’R)
  7. Tijuana Jail (Gilby/Slash/Matt)
  8. Madagascar (GN’R)
  9. Absurd (GN’R)
  10. Six Feet Under (Duff/Matt – Neurotic Outsiders)
  11. This I Love (GN’R)
  12. Back and Forth Again (Slash)

REVIEW: Tesla – Time’s Makin’ Changes – The Best of Tesla (1995)

TESLA – Time’s Makin’ Changes – The Best of Tesla (1995 Geffen)

Tommy Skeoch:  you’re out!  According to the band, Tommy had some drug issues and they drew a line.  He went “Steppin’ Over” that line and was fired for it.  Thus, the sole unreleased song on Tesla’s very first greatest hits album is an ode to their breakup:  “Steppin’ Over”.  It was recorded as a four-piece, and the last thing they did together until a 2000 reunion.

The 90s were not kind to hard rock bands, and many of them came to the end of their record deals.  Compilations and live albums rolled out to fulfil obligations.  Time’s Makin’ Changes – The Best of Tesla is a sad example of one such contractual obligation.  As if the bland cover was not warning enough, the skimpy booklet is the dead giveaway.

What it has:

Key tracks such as “Modern Day Cowboy”, “Gettin’ Better”, “Little Suzi”, “Love Songs”, “Signs”, “Edison’s Medicine”, “The Way It Is”, and “What You Give”.

What it lacks:  “Hang Tough”, “Shine Away”, “Change in the Weather”, “Call It What You Want”, “Freedom Slaves”, “EZ Come EZ Go”, “Comin’ Atcha Live”, and an unedited “Heaven’s Trail”.  The edited version included here is missing too much of the opening.

There are a couple questionable inclusions:  “Song and Emotion”, a lengthy tribute to Def Leppard’s Steve Clarke, seems more like deep-cut material.  When it comes to the last Tesla album on Geffen, 1994’s Bust A Nut, who can say which tracks the most important.  It seems like the album might have been better represented by edgier material like “Rubberband”, or “Solution”.  Might have livened things up too.

It’s also kind of deceiving that the two live tracks included are not advertised as live.  “Signs”, well, no worries, because it was only ever recorded live.  But “Paradise” is also from the Five Man Acoustical Jam album.  This is probably done so not to confuse first time Tesla buyers who didn’t realize all this time that “Signs” is a live song.

As for the new song “Steppin’ Over”, it sounds like Tesla even though they were down to one guitar player.  It doesn’t sound new or different, just a continuation of the Bust A Nut sound, including the sad wisdom.  It takes a neat Zeppelin-y turn around the 2:18 mark but otherwise it’s not what you’d call a greatest hit.

It’s a shame how the Tesla story went down, but you’d do well by at least adding the first three albums to your collection.

2.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Tesla – The Great Radio Controversy (1989)

TESLA – The Great Radio Controversy (1989 Geffen)

Tesla came right out of the box with two great studio albums in a row.  Their debut Mechanical Resonance is close to perfect.  Two years later they came into their own even more with The Great Radio Controversy which saw them stretch it out further.  The dropped some of the more overt heavy metal influences that were heard on “Modern Day Cowboy” and went for the roots.  The Great Radio Controversy provided Tesla with their biggest hit, “Love Song”, the track that got me into the band for good.

1989-90 was peak power ballad time and I loved ’em as much as any lonely highschool boy wouldBob Schipper was the Tesla fan first, but once I decided to take the plunge, I went all the way and got both albums on CD instead of cassette.  Though the big hit was the ballad, The Great Radio Controversy is a tougher album overall than the debut.  Once hooked by “Love Song”, other tunes made themselves immediately prominent.  Unfortunately the ballad probably didn’t convey an accurate image of Tesla to the general public.

Tesla were great at writing hooks, and opener “Hang Tough” hits right away with a killer little bass intro by Brian Wheat.  This hard-hitter is a killer song with dual guitars, and Jeff Keith just givin’ ‘er at the microphone.  It’s a defiant tune with the kind of shouted chorus that a concert crowd could get behind.  Guitars galore courtesy of Mssrs. Hannon and Skeoch.  Continuing the lyrical theme of “hangin’ in there”, it’s “Lady Luck”.  The punchy chorus, “Lady Luck took a walk,” has a Def Leppard vibe circa Pyromania.  Jeff Keith’s convincing rasp is like a blunt instrument for delivering hooks.

The first track that really showed Tesla were a cut above the Hollywood trash was “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)”, a track ahead of its time.  With a grungy, chunky groove and acoustics layered with electrics, wah-wahs and slides, it’s Tesla doing their own thing.  It has one foot in southern rock and another in molten lead.  At this point, Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch were on their way to “serious guitar duo” status.

Tesla lighten up a bit on “Be a Man”, catchy and simple enough for the radio.  Nicely composed for easy consumption, complete with a considerably canorous guitar solo.  The skies grow dark again quickly on “Lazy Days, Crazy Nights” which sounds like it should be a party rocker, but is not.  “I’m doing fine right here on borrowed time,” sings Jeff on this memorable dirge.  Things get hot again on “Did it For the Money”, a slammin’ track with another riff reminiscent of a certain British band from Sheffield.  They don’t slow down on “Yesterdaze Gone”, the side closer, which is only faster and more intense.

A solid side-opening “Makin’ Magic” brings the tempo back to centre.  Chugging along with guitarmonies aloft, this is a nice rocker to reset the tone.  This leads into another single, “The Way It Is”, which is a light rocker but not quite a ballad.  Tesla’s southern side shines through.  It sounds like a celebration with a little bit of Skynyrd on the side.

I have one memory regarding “Flight to Nowhere”.  It was September of my last year of highschool, and for the yearbook, they wanted to take a big aerial photo.  I believe we stood in the football field spelling the letters “GRCI” while a plane flew overhead taking the pictures.  I remember standing near my friend Danesh, who also owned a CD of The Great Radio Controversy.  This song came to our minds as we jokingly imagined doomy scenarios of plane crashes and our imminent deaths.  “Goin’ down!  I’m on a flight to nowhere!”  Anecdote aside, this killer track is a deep cut tragically ignored over the years.  As it blasts through the skies powered by the chug of electric guitars, it only gets more intense.  My favourite line to repeat:  “Now the headlines read all across the lands, ’bout the motherfuckers gettin’ way outta hand.”  It seemed to genuinely apply to the world we lived in, as Iraq invaded Kuwait and created a powderkeg in the middle east.  More importantly it captured my youthful anger at the situation the world found itself it.  Motherfuckers.

The one weakness that The Great Radio Controversy has is its length.  We’re on track 11 and only now getting to “Love Song”.  Like “Little Suzi” on the previous LP, this one opens with a unique acoustic instrumental passage.  It is a mini composition of its own, unrelated to “Love Song” with a vaguely neoclassical vibe.   Yet it’s still a part of it, as one seems incomplete without the other.  Either way, “Love Song” is a powerhouse, a definitive power ballad, and one of the best from a period that suffered from a glut of them.  Midway it goes to a whole new level with a gut-busting Frankie Hannon lead.

Everything after this unfortunately feels like anti-climax because of the massive presence “Love Song” has on the second side.  “Paradise” is a good tune, which actually sounded better when it was redone acoustically on the next album Five Man Acoustic Jam.  The original is a tad overwrought, like heavy-handed Aerosmith.  The final song is, appropriately enough “Party’s Over”.  The riff bounces from the left speaker to the right in a cool effect, and once again I’m reminded of another five-member band from across the pond with the same management (Q-Prime).

Though song for song, The Great Radio Controversy seems the equal of Mechanical Resonance, it’s just a hint more uneven due to its longer running time.  Minor quibble.  Tesla had made two outstanding rock albums in a row by now and were still growing.   Some say The Great Radio Controversy is the best Tesla album.  I say, you be the judge.

4.25/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Jackyl – Jackyl (1992)

JACKYL – Jackyl (1992 Geffen)

This is one of the CDs I inherited from my late Uncle Don Don.  I always wanted the first Jackyl for two songs:  “She Loves My Cock” and of course “The Lumberjack”.  Now that I finally have it, I thought it would be fun to review it “live” on first listen.  The first thing to notice is that all of the songs are under five minutes.

Jackyl, starring Jesse James Dupree on lead vocals and chainsaw, signed to Geffen at the tail end of the hard rock era in 1991. It wasn’t too late though as Jackyl scored a platinum with their 1992 self titled debut. Even though they never reached those heights again, Jackyl have continued on to the present day with relatively few lineup changes.

With a song called “She Loves My Cock”, you can probably understand why why K-Mart refused to stock this album. In protest, Jackyl filmed their video for opener “I Stand Alone” in a K-Mart parking lot. An AC/DC vibe is imminent, but Americanized with shout-along chorus.  Dupree certainly has the Brian Johnson pitch and grit, as well as certain vocal inflections.  Good track, solid groove, great catchy solos.  The shouted bits are dated, but the song is otherwise pretty slick.

Then Jesse James starts squealing about a “Dirty Little Mind”, a sleazy rocker with more of the shouting, and then it gets really dirty.  Not a classic in any universe, but it sounds like it would be fun singing along in a bar.  A stuttery riff, like those popularized in the late 80s and early 90s, starts off “Down On Me”, catchy midtempo heaven with a soulful southern slant.  Apparently “Down On Me” was their biggest charting hit, even surpassing “The Lumberjack” and “When Will It Rain”.  I remember “When Will It Rain” from the music video, a darker and stormier concoction.  It seems an unlikely single, but thus far it’s the most serious track.  Certainly more serious than “Redneck Punk” which sounds like its name.  Sped-up punk beats infused with a Dixieland vibes.  And then as if to make the “redneck” point even further, it’s “The Lumberjack”.  I love found objects in music as a general concept, and it’s awesome to hear a sleazy rock band like Jackyl executing such highbrow concepts, going as far as to play an actual chainsaw solo and still keeping it musical. The contrast of the highbrow with the brutally juvenile lyrics strides that ever-so-fine line between clever and stupid.

It sounds as if this would be a natural place for a side break, as “Reach For Me” has a completely different vibe.  A choppy riff and dynamic verses really set up a cool song.  Without missing a beat we’re on to “Back Off Brother”, a tough little number with a minimalist riff.  “Brain Drain” has a slightly funky feel emphasized by the cowbell.  Not an album highlight, but a strange cross between AC/DC and Def Leppard.  Dupree expresses a clear preference for alcohol.  “It’s not the ‘caine, not the Mary Jane, but the golden grain.”  It’s good to know what you like.  A slick one called “Just Like the Devil” starts to wind things up with a tough riff and speedy beat.

Finally and wisely the album ends on “She Loves My Cock”, the track that got them banned from K-Mart.  There are clean versions of this CD available without the song, but what’s the point?  This album without that song like like a sentence without the exclamation mark!  The lyrics are not repeatable here but you can use your imagination.  Fortunately there is a solid foundation to this heavy track to support the ridiculous words.

And that’s the album, thoroughly enjoyable with minimal filler.  I could probably live without “Brain Drain” and “Dirty Little Mind”, but stuff like “Reach For Me” and “Down On Me” are like newly discovered treasure.  A good album that stretches out just enough, but never exceeds its ambitions.  Jackyl wants to be a party album with humour and balls, so that’s what it is.  It couldn’t exist without AC/DC or gasoline-powered wood-cutting implements, and there are few albums you can say that about.

3.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Richie Kotzen – Mother Head’s Family Reunion (1994 Japanese import)

Kotzen’s music is cut for hard rockers who like insane playing and a side of R&B.

 

RICHIE KOTZEN presents the Mother Head’s Family Reunion (1994 Geffen, Japanese with bonus track)

Did anybody really expect Richie Kotzen to stay in Poison?  The chances of that happening were always about as good as a Beatles reunion tour — next to zilch.  Kotzen’s talent burst at the seams that were Poison.  He could not have been content for long.  Post-Poison he resumed business swiftly with Mother Head’s Family Reunion, his fifth overall recording.

A funky “Socialite” demonstrates Kotzen’s diversity.  Drummer Atma Anur breaks it down while Richie brings the soul.  Kotzen’s music is cut for hard rockers who like insane playing and a side of R&B.   The soulful profile is on full display with “Mother Head’s Family Reunion” which sounds like a Black Crowes cover.  Switch to blues balladeering on “Where Did Our Love Go”, and “Natural Thing” brings it all the way to funk again.

Listening closely, Mother Head’s Family Reunion sounds a lot like Native Tongue, Phase II.  It’s that album, but beyond:  it’s Kotzen completely unleashed and without Bret Michaels.  You could easily imagine a track like “A Love Divine” on side two of Native Tongue, among the more grooving material.  That connects seamlessly with “Soul to Soul”, another bluesy ballad, with a summery feel.  “Testify” has a similar bright side, and a wailing chorus.

Cover songs can be shaky ground, and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” sticks out like a sore thumb, a song from another era that doesn’t match up with Richie’s originals.  That’s not to say it’s bad.  Far from it — it’s one of the best covers of it that you’ll find.  It’s just on the wrong album, even as it jams on for seven minutes!

Through the last four tracks (“Used”, “A Woman & A Man”, “Livin’ Easy” and “Cover Me”) Richie and company rock it up and slow it down again with consistently impressive chops.  There are no weak songs, and Kotzen’s ballads have a genuine sound that stays timeless no matter the year.  The speedy funk-soul-metal soup of “Cover Me” concludes the standard domestic album by smoking your ears with blazing hot licks.

This album, long out of print, has been reissued in Japan with the bonus track intact, at a surprisingly low price.  (Amazon Canada had it in stock for $22.33.)  If you’re lucky enough to acquire it, you’ll get the extra song “Wailing Wall”.  Sometimes the Japanese fans got the best exclusives.  “Wailing Wall” is one.  It taps into the spirit of Tommy Bolin-era Deep Purple and it could be the best song of them all.

Easy decision:  Get some.

4.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I & II (1991)

GUNS N’ ROSES – Use Your Illusion I & Use Your Illusion II (1991 Geffen)

In my review for Guns N’ Roses’ smashing debut Appetite For Destruction, I stated that “Appetite is great, but Illusions are better”.  A strong and controversial statement.  How could I say such a thing?

Use Your Illusion I and II are a case of “Bigger, Better, Faster, More!”  Consider:

1. “Bigger”

Certainly in terms of length, Illusions are far bigger:  2 hours and 32 minutes compared to 53 minutes for Appetite.  I concede that the Illusions albums have far more filler than Appetite.  Given that the grand total of awesome material on Illusions still exceeds the length of Appetite, I think “Bigger” is a given.  They made us wait and wait and wait, but they made it worth our while.  You can’t always say that for Guns N’ Roses.

2. “Better”

Guns N’ Roses’ lineup was “new and improved!” in 1991.  Original drummer Steven Adler was given the boot due to severe issues with substances, replaced by Matt Sorum, who they knew from The Cult.  I won’t argue that Matt Sorum is a “better” drummer than Steven Adler, because they are too different.  Regardless of this, Sorum was able to expand Guns’ rhythmical pallette.  He could play things Adler could not at the time, such as “You Could Me Mine” and “Double Talkin’ Jive”.  As for the core members, each of them expanded their own talents on these albums.  Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin were now lead vocalists on a few tracks.  Slash’s guitar playing grew exponentially.  Izzy blossomed as a songwriter with some of Guns’ most diverse material.  And Axl Rose really got into the piano, contributing a ton of it, and even the techno influence that would later evolve into Chinese Democracy.  His vocal stylings also expanded, with more use of his lower voice.  Everybody had gotten…better.

3. “Faster”

It’s possible that “Right Next Door to Hell” is the fastest Guns track ever recorded.  “Perfect Crime” and “Garden of Eden” also qualify.

4. “More!”

Guns expanded their official lineup to a six piece with the arrival of keyboardist Dizzy Reed.  They also had plenty of special guests:  Alice Cooper*, Michael Monroe, and a guy named Shannon Hoon from the then-unknown Blind Melon.  Hoon appeared in the “Don’t Cry” music video.  Steven Adler was even on “Civil War”, one of the earliest tracks finished.  How’s that for more?  Not enough?  Throw on some orchestras, then.

Of course the weakness to this argument is the old saying that “less is more”, and that theory holds water.  Ultimately, it comes down to taste.  Do you prefer the nuclear assault of Appetite, or the complex stew of Illusions?  Fortunately, you don’t have to choose.  You can buy and love them all.

We reviewers, however, are not afforded such luxury.  We are expected to rate these things and answer tough questions about why.  I cannot deny how I feel about the Illusions albums.  I think II tops I, but from first listen, these albums were very special.  The ambition, the indulgence, and the time paid off on these albums.

Breaking it down, there are numerous top tier bonafide classics on Use Your Illusion I and II.  I think if you boiled the album down to these basic original tracks (colour coded by original album), you’d have a hard time beating it.

Proposal:

  1. Dust N’ Bones
  2. Don’t Cry
  3. Bad Obsession
  4. Double Talkin’ Jive
  5. November Rain
  6. The Garden
  7. Coma
  8. Civil War
  9. 14 Years
  10. Breakdown
  11. Pretty Tied Up
  12. Locomotive
  13. Estranged
  14. You Could Be Mine

And look…that’s enough for a perfectly awesome single CD.  It doesn’t even include the excellent covers “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Live and Let Die”, both hit singles for Guns.  It also excludes dumb but fun stuff like “Get in the Ring”.  You know you and your buddies have recited the words.  Don’t lie to me!

I always choose to listen to these albums in full, in sequence.  I find that to be the best way to go, as they intended it to be.

Appetite showed the world that rock and roll could still be dangerous and loud.  The Illusions albums immediately proved that Axl was a hell of a tortured genius.  However it’s not a one man show.  The dominant songwriter is Izzy Stradlin, with 11 credits on most of the best material.  His singing added a Keith Richards rasp to the band’s repertoire as well.

You don’t have to agree with my rating, but I feel that all of the above really overshadows the filler on Use Your Illusion.  Some of the material I consider filler were singles.  “Dead Horse” and “Garden of Eden” were both hit music videos.  The sheer bloat and indulgence of this set was a sharp and delightful contrast to the first waves of back-to-basics grunge bands.  It kept Guns on the charts for years.

In a 1991 M.E.A.T Magazine interview, Slash stated that after Appetite, every band in the world copied their style.  He challenged bands to try and copy them this time.  “To copy us, you’d have to be us.”  Slash was correct.  Nobody could touch Illusions.

5/5 stars

 

* The story behind the Cooper cameo is that Axl has originally sung all of “The Garden” himself. He sang it in a very Alice Cooper voice, and there was concern it was too close for comfort. So they called up Alice (who they worked with before on “Under My Wheels”) and Alice just nailed “The Garden”.

REVIEW: Tesla – Five Man Acoustical Jam (1990)

TESLA – Five Man Acoustical Jam (1990 Geffen)

One of the great Unplugged albums of all time…isn’t even an “official” Unplugged album.  That would be Tesla’s spontaneously released Five Man Acoustical Jam from 1990.  Its hit single “Signs” absolutely helped set up the MTV Unplugged revolution.

With no intention of creating a live album, Tesla played a few acoustic gigs on off days and then recorded the Philly show for the archives.  However a radio station in Boston started playing an acoustic rendition of “Signs” and plans were put in motion to capitalize.  Thus Five Man Acoustical Jam came to be, a highlight of the Tesla catalogue that was almost completely unplanned.

“We’re just fuckin’ around tonight!” says singer Jeff Keith before “Heaven’s Trail”.  Well then Tesla should spend more time fucking around.  The looseness of the songs was so fresh for 1990.  Tesla rolled the hits: “Modern Day Cowboy”, “Gettin’ Better”, “The Way it Is”, and of course “Love Song”, the only one with an electric solo.  But because they were “just fuckin’ around”, there are also some very interesting covers:  Beatles, Stones, the Dead, CCR and of course the Five Man Electrical Band.  Tesla’s version of “We Can Work it Out” is awesome and incredibly fun.  Less so with the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” which is an unusually structured song to start with.  “Lodi” by CCR was custom made for Tesla.  “Signs”, of course what the smartest cover song decision the band ever made.

Five Man Acoustical Jam is a live album held in high esteem, for many good reasons.

1. A great selection of original material (old and brand new) that worked well in the acoustic format.
2. Choice covers.
3. Terrific recording, and 100% live with no fixes or overdubs.
4. Expert musicianship.
5. Humour.

Frank Zappa asked “Does humour belong in music?” The answer is “Sometimes”! One of those times is a loose, fun acoustic show. They could get away with playing a joke track like “Tommy’s Down Home”, written and sung by guitarist Tommy Skeoch. “I’d like to cut the balls off a long-haired hippie, and tie them up to a tree,” he sings gleefully.

The one single was the smash hit “Signs”, and it had a non-album B-side.  “Little Suzi” (also a cover, but an earlier one) might be from the same gig.  Jeff’s voice is shredded on this one, but it’s hella cool.

It’s probably fair to say that Tesla are underrated.  They get stuck on tours with bands like Poison, who have nothing to do with the rootsy rock that Tesla has on offer.  Tesla are better than that, and Five Man Acoustical Jam is actually a bit of an essential classic to own.   The irony is that Tesla’s most definitive live album is the one that was basically a fluke!

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Tesla – Bust a Nut (1994)

TESLA – Bust a Nut (1994 Geffen)

During my first few weeks at the Record Store, one of the new releases I got to deal with was the new Tesla, Bust a Nut.  My boss cracked open a copy to play in store, but he wasn’t impressed.

“It sounds the same…” he remarked.  “It’s just the same.”

Gosh, Tesla didn’t go grunge or rap in 1994?  What a crime.  No, instead Tesla stubbornly continued, as they always have, without bowing to trends.  Bust a Nut wasn’t a successful album, but it was a damn good one.  To call Bust a Nut “the same” sells it short.  It sounded like Tesla, but a tad heavier and more diverse.  Of course, this being Tesla, there must be ballads too.

“The Gate” invites you in via chugging guitars and squealing six-strings.  It merges into “Invited”, a hell of a fine introduction.  “Invited” reflects the light and shade of Tesla in one song:  the mournful acoustic verses, the heavy and catchy choruses, all grounded in a solid classic rock vibe.  Tommy Skeoch and Frank Hannon made one fine guitar duo, and the layers of instrumental goodness will keep you interested and digging for more.  Heavier still is “The Solution”, which is about as metal as Tesla have ever been.  Songs about environmental conservation are more relevant than ever:  “Mother nature’s on her knees, and we’re the reason for her disease.”  Very true, Jeff Keith.  “If we’re gonna make it through tomorrow, the solution is to make a change today.”  Tesla have never used such a grinding, detuned riff like this before.  What’s this about it being “just the same”?  Tesla didn’t go grunge, but they were able to go harder within their own style.

A brilliant track called “Shine Away” uses the soft/loud dynamic popularized by grunge, but that chorus is brighter than the sun.  Enjoy some patented Tesla guitar harmonies which always sound as if inspired by Thin Lizzy, though this time verging on Iron Maiden!  Time to cool things down with a ballad, and “Try So Hard” is a lovely one in the acoustic mold.  A good variety of tunes occupy the rest of side one, but the next obvious standout is “Action Talks”.  This is as angry as Tesla get, even dropping a “fuck you!” in the lyrics.  It’s difficult to imagine that the same band can do “Action Talks” and “Try So Hard”!

Bluegrass and heavy bluesy rock collide on “Mama’s Fool”, as Tesla have never been afraid to mix genres.  Sharp fans will recognize the opening and closing acoustic patterns as the same as “Government Personnel” from Psychotic Supper (1991).  A slamming beat drives the tense “Cry”, a killer track based on a simple riff.  Dig that theremin!  “Rubberband” returns to the soft/loud format, and the loud part is fucking killer.  The chorus goes on for days and sticks like glue.  Another heavy groove called “Earthmover” earns its title, but some of the best tracks on side two are the ballads.  “A Lot to Lose” is likeable, and “Wonderful World” begins with a southern acoustic flavour.  Best of all is the fun closer, the old Joe South hit “Games People Play”.  It’s Tesla-fied, and the sitar is ditched in favour of more traditional rock instrumentation.  It’s transformed into a soul-gospel-rock and roll good time.

Tesla fired Tommy Skeoch (too many drug problems) and went down to a quartet before splitting up.  Thankfully they have enjoyed a long and quality-driven reunion since 2001.  Bust a Nut is an unsung highlight of their catalogue, and an album you’d be well advised to pick up.

4/5 stars