Gggarth

REVIEW: Ugly Kid Joe – Menace to Sobriety / “Milkman’s Son” single (1995)

UGLY KID JOE – Menace to Sobriety (1995 Polygram)

Let me tell ya folks, this album ain’t bad. Ugly Kid Joe made it hard to take them seriously sometimes, but on their second full-length Menace to Sobriety, they did what most jokey bands eventually do: Get serious. Get heavy. With former Wrathchild America drummer Shannon Larkin replacing original member Mark Davis, perhaps this was inevitable.  If not, co-producer GGGarth made it inevitable.

The first single “Tomorrow’s World” was dark-edged modern metal. No jokes, no wit, just Whit, givin’ ‘er at top lung. The album would pretty much follow suit. It felt like they got one side of their personalities out of their systems for the moment and wanted to do something a little more true to the heart.

An instrumental intro just called “Intro” gets a couple heavy riffs out of way in short order. The new drummer’s thick presence is felt immediately. This intro jumps right into “God”, a heavy wade through the mosh pit, spilling hooks all over the floor in violent celebration. Whitfield Crane sounds more menacing, but he’s still obviously the charismatic frontman. Cool wah-wah inflected solo too, which was one of the only ways you could make guitar solos work in 1995.

When “Tomorrow’s World” first hits, it’s with a beat and a rolling bass line, perfectly on brand for the 90s. After the quietly tense opening verses, Whit and the band rip it wide open with another ferocious riff and chorus. It’s well within Black Sabbath’s backyard (U.S. campus), while keeping a foot in 90s. A perfect mix of integrities.

Tempos get faster on “Clover”, with Whit taking his throat even further. The riffs are still the foundation, this one a little bit Priest-like. If the lyrics to “God” were a little on the nose at times, they’re more interesting in light of this one from “Clover”. “I was tempted, but the apple made me stronger.” Whitfield then screams that he’s here to free us. There’s more going on here than a guy who just hates “everything about you”.

The funky side returns on the speedy “C.U.S.T.” (“Can’t You See Them”).  Whit speed-raps through the impressive verses while the band jams hard underneath, wah-wah now back center stage.  Great tune and in fact better than some of the competition’s songs in this genre at the same time.  There’s a killer, clever percussion break in the middle that differentiates Ugly Kid Joe from the bands who were leading the pack.

“Milkman’s Son” was the single, an electric ballad and rightfully chosen.  It’s not soft, there’s a tasty jagged riff to keep it cool, but this is clearly the one that fills the part of prior Ugly Kid Joe hits such as “Busy Bee”.  Great tune, if a bit doomed.

The grind of a bass groove returns on “Suckerpath”, which seems about to about avoiding the ego and big head of rock stardom.  “Never goin’ down a suckerpath, baby,” insists Whit.  Unlike a lot of the tunes on Menace to Sobriety, “Suckerpath” never really explodes with power the way they have so far.  It remains in this wallowing groove, which rocks but never quite satisfies.

Another ballad:  “Cloudy Skies” has the kind of twang where you could called it “Western Skies”.  Still electric; no acoustic softness to be found, but quite excellent.  Crane seems to have tapped into something heartfelt here, and his singing is excellent.  Sticking to tunes with broad appeal, “Jesus Rode A Harley” is one of the most straight ahead and upbeat tracks on the album.

There’s an AC/DC vibe to the opening of “10/10” but then it goes pure grunge groove.  Suitably dark, impressively heavy, and utilizing tricks like conga and slide.  There’s a direction on this album and “10/10” is right down the middle.  Not an outstanding track overall but one you can headbang along to quite easily.  At the end, Whit tries to go full metal scream and does pretty good. This actually leads pretty well into the Priestly vibes on “V.I.P.”.  Priest circa Hell Bent, with a touch of Halford’s Fight.  The lead vocals are Jon Oliva from Savatage to a tee, whether intentional or not.

Finally, the jokey side emerges on “Oompa”, which is exactly what you think it is.  A heavy metal version of the Oompa Loopma song from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  And why not?  Green Jelly were having hits with this kind of song.  It’s only two minutes long and hey…it’s Ugly Kid Joe. And just misdirection.  That’s not how the album’s supposed to end.

After long last, the acoustic guitars come out on the tender closer “Candle Song”.  There’s more than a hint of western twang, but if you wanted a traditional hard rock ballad closer, here you go.  “Candle Song” is excellent way to take the listener down after such intensely heavy rocking.

The band isn’t entirely done with their sense of humour.  Open up the booklet and you will find a rental house bill for damages including a food fight.  Total cost:  $12,896.81.

4/5 stars


UGLY KID JOE – “Milkman’s Son” / “Tomorrow’s World” (1995 Mercury CD single)

This single seems kind of like a double header between “Milkman’s Son” and “Tomorrow’s World” which was the music video getting all the play on MuchMusic at the time.  Two of the best tracks from the album, they are a terrific one-two punch for this CD single.

The bonus tracks are quite cool.  There’s a 1994 version of “God”, which is structurally the same but rougher sounding.  Amazing how close to the final mark it was.  Then there’s a really rough demo of “C.U.S.T.” but still very close to its final form.  Hearing these somewhat flatter sounding early versions after listening to the album is really interesting, since it is so consistently pounding, especially in the bass.

Great single for bonus material and a good score if you can find one.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: White Lion – Pride (1987)

Enjoy this first of two White Lion reviews. Stay tuned for the second in a couple days!

PRIDE_0001WHITE LION – Pride (1987 Atlantic)

I’ve had some fierce arguments with some rock fans about this album.  Regardless of its flaws, I steadfastly defend it and especially the talents of one Vito Bratta, the best guitarist to never become a guitar hero.  After the breakup of White Lion in 1991, Bratta retreated from public life and music completely.  Some have argued to me, “If he was such a talent, he’d still be around.”  Such talk is ignorant of the facts.  Bratta spent many years as a caregiver to ill parents, and whatever decisions he made have to be respected.

I mentioned that this album is flawed, so I’m going to get that part out of the way first.  There are two things about this album that suck.  One is the production, by the normally awesome Michael Wagener (engineered by Canadian “Gggarth” Richardson).  It’s really muddy, echoey, and annoying.  It is indicative of the times.

The second thing that drives me nuts are the lyrics.  I know Mike Tramp is Danish and English is his second language, but there were three guys from New York (Staten Island and Brooklyn) in the band that could have helped.  As Exhibit A, I present you “Lady of the Valley”:

Lady of the valley
Can you hear me cry
In the stillness of the night
I have lost my brother
In the fights of the war
And my heart has broken down

I always stumble over that “In the fights of the war” line.  That’s one of the “serious” songs, something that White Lion tackled frequently (improving over the years).  For their flaws I’ll at least respect Mike Tramp’s willingness to present a personal point of view on specific issues (“Little Fighter”, “Cry For Freedom”, “Warsong”, “El Salvador”).  Unfortunately Pride is loaded with songs about young girls and what Mike Tramp would like to do with them.  Below, Exhibit B:

Keep your engine running high
When you take my love inside
But hold the trigger on my loaded gun (“Hungry”)

Little miss Dee’s got a dirty mind
All around the boys she’s one of a kind
If you wanna good time you can take her home
Cause everyone knows she is good in bed (“Sweet Little Loving”)

I’ll stop there.

Musically, and performance-wise, Pride is a joy to listen to.  What an untapped well of talent Vito Bratta is.  In the guitar magazines, he was noted for having captured some of the magic of Eddie Van Halen, and I agree with that.  Bratta has definitely mastered the Van Halen book of rock.  His riffs are much like Van Halen’s, with one guitar playing the rhythm and flicking in and out with tricky little licks.  It sounds difficult as hell.  “Hungry” is the most Van Halen-like.  The difference is that Bratta sounds like a much more schooled player.  Everything sounds meticulously planned and written.  When he takes a solo, it’s a combination of Van Halen and neoclassical discipline.  And every song is absolutely loaded with fills and tricks.  Pride is very busy guitar-wise, in a good way.

“Hungry” is a great song, a dark Dokken-esque opener.  Also similar to Dokken is the second track, the mid-tempo “Lonely Nights”.  It’s another strong track, and I find Mike Tramp’s raspy voice similar to Jon Bon Jovi’s from time to time.  Bratta executes a fluttery solo, and then it’s on to the next one, “Don’t Give Up”.  Again, I find the lyrics tedious.  I like positivity, but I don’t find, “Don’t give up, even when it’s tough,” to be very profound.  Thankfully this uptempo banger is another winner musically.  Once again I struggle to keep up with Bratta’s stunning fretwork.

“Lady of the Valley” is pretty impressive.  It’s the “epic” I suppose, 6 1/2 minutes in length.  The riff is choppy and smoking, and the rhythm section of James LoMenzo and Greg D’Angelo is spot-in.  Then Bratta gets his echoey acoustic guitar out and the song mutates.  An anthemic chorus tops a great song.

Side Two of the album was packed with singles:  the hits “Wait”, “Tell Me”, and “When the Chrildren Cry”.  “Wait” and “Tell Me” are both songs that Bon Jovi would have given their nuts to write.  Tramp’s raspy vocals are absolutely perfect, as was his blonde mane, and the girls went wild.  “When the Children Cry” was and still is an impressive acoustic performance.  Even in 1987 I was impressed that White Lion chose to forgo drums and backing instrumentation.  This simple, quiet song is the template for what Extreme would do three years later with “More Than Words”.  Bratta was a guitar player able to pull off such an arrangement without sacrificing integrity.

The album is rounded out by “All Join Our Hands” and “All You Need Is Rock N Roll”, two odes to the greatest music ever invented.  “All You Need Is Rock N Roll” is quite cool, beginning with what sounds like a drunken acoustic jam, and ending with with some killer bluesy playing from everyone.  Both songs are great.  I have always felt that the album tracks were as strong as the singles; like an album of 10 singles.

Shame about the sound and the lyrics, though.

 3.5/5 stars