Friday, January 23, 2009

BillyBlog, in the Spirit of Chinese Democracy, Finally Posts a Review

I was going to review the new Guns N' Roses album Chinese Democracy similar to the way I reviewed the latest Metallica release here. That is, type it up on my BlackBerry as I experienced it via my iPod while riding the subway.

But this release is a cultural landmark. and it deserves a little more thought.

And, for all intents and purposes, this isn't an objective review. It's a pouring on of adulation. I'm no critic. I tend to acquire the things I know I'm going to like, and ignore the things I don't. If the album sucked, I wouldn't waste time reviewing it. If you want to read a bad review, just
google "guns roses chinese democracy overwrought," substituting "overwrought" with any negative buzzword that people like to employ to make them sound important.

I am coming into this "review" as a long-time G n' R fan. I still recall the Fall day, in 1987, sitting in my corner room at Pauley Hall, Room 222, at Occidental College. My door was open, and the R.A. from the ground floor, Brent Tharp, came to my door, holding a cassette tape, and said "You gotta hear this". He was holding the debut album from the band, Appetite for Destruction, which had been released that summer, and had yet to garner any significant airplay. Even tucked away in our little corner of northeast Los Angeles, Axl Rose and Co. were still unknown.

We sat and listened and I remember my reaction. How does no one know about these guys? Nothing had ever sounded like this before, and a friend recently asked me if the new album compared to the first. "Impossible," I told him. Appetite not only raised the bar to new heights, it raised the bar to an unattainable level. It's like Bob Beamon's long jump record that stood for 33 years, and Mike Powell's new mark that has stood for 17 more. Will a band ever release an album better than Appetite for Destruction? It's possible. Is it really? I'll believe it when I hear it.

And I remember hearing "Paradise City" for the first time on the radio in December 1987 in Honolulu. And then, in the Spring of 1988, the "Sweet Child o' Mine" video was released and the band achieved mega-rock star status.

Twenty years later, there's a new G n' R album. Of course purists, discounting the fact that Axl owns the band name, will say it is not G n' R without Slash, Duff, Matt, and Izzy. Whatever. I am a firm believer that, with rare exception, the sound of the singer creates the band. Don't send
me the exceptions. I know, I know. But this is my mindset.

So, there have been two types of reviews of Chinese Democracy, raving like this one in Rolling Stone, or hypercritical like this one in the Chicago Sun Times. Okay, and mixed reviews too. My favorite is from Chuck Klosterman, who has written endlessly about the mythological nature
of the album, who I even asked at a Q and A at a book signing over five years ago, if he ever thought this would be released. He was doubtful then, although he wanted to believe that it could someday happen. Read his review here.

Here's my take. It's all in the approach. If you want to hear good, new Guns N' Roses music, you'll like this effort. If you're predisposed to haterism, then you'll surely sneer at its grandiosity.

[Several days have passed]

I have decided that there isn't a song on this album that I dislike. Sure I like others better than some, but even the songs that have been singled out by other critics as crap, I still like to some degree. Which goes to show, Axl's crap is a lot better than other artists' good stuff.

Let's take a track-by-track approach, shall we?

1) "Chinese Democracy". The title track and the album's first single. The opening bars alone are worthy of accolades. The guitars rip and rattle the speakers, or earbuds, or whatever. It sets the bar high, too high for some, who would prefer the whole album sound like this. The lead guitar on this song is astoundingly complex, and whizzes about behind the lyrics like a mosquito, buzzing away. It's a phenomenal track.

2) "Shackler's Revenge" is next, announcing itself with a whining guitar. "Don't every try to tell me/how much you care for me" Axl warns. The songs has a driving beat. It's funny, whenever I focus on one of the "lesser" songs on the album, I start to think, "Oh yeah, here's one I don't like so much." Then thirty seconds in, I'm reminded how wrong I was. But there's something about this track that doesn't seems G-n-R-ish. But then, it does.

3) "Better" is probably the biggest reason "Shackler's Revenge" seems so inferior. Here we get that familiar Axl voice, with a siren-like guitar. And then the chorus hits and the song soars even higher. "Better" is certainly "better". And more amazing guitar. And no one can scream as melodically as W. Axl Rose. This song started with a dream of greatness and then blossomed into full awesomeness. It's big, bold, overblown and brassy. And it works.

4) "Street of Dreams" starts with piano, and a crooning Rose that made me think of a 21st century "November Rain". But there's that Axl sound, punctuating the soaring keys and then, boom! - the song weaves between hard power pop and radio rock. I started thinking this was a disappointing song, but it grows on you the more you hear it. It probably reminds me the most
of Slash-era G n' R.

[January 22, 2009, Ben, reader and blogger over at Once Were Bachelors emails me and takes me to task for not reviewing the album, having just discovered its release. He is shocked and questions why I haven't reviewed the album. The remainder of the review is thanks to him.]

Interlude. I started reviewing this in November 2008 and it is now two months later. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I will summarize. I love this album, but can totally understand why people don't. Now, back to the track-by-track summary.

5) "If the World" has one of the most bizarre (read: interesting) intros to a Guns n' Roses song I can think of. It certainly sounds "modern," though some critics may claim it sound more like "late 90s". However, there is no mistaking this is Axl Rose singing. It's a slow-paced song, with a strange distant piece about 2 minutes in. And after multiple listenings, I am convinced it is a piece of musical brilliance, although I can't quite pinpoint why. It originally premiered in the film Body of Lies.

6) "There Was a Time" returns to a little bit of normality and sounds like a stereotypical GnR song. And it is pretty awesome. It has the guitar, the sweeping range of everything that is great about Axl's voice. And it has a strings section. Did I mention it was pretty awesome?

7) "Catcher in the Rye" starts with a piano and stays consistently interesting. It's a nice song, but is maybe the one song that takes the most getting used to. Then again, there is a pretty great guitar solo in it.

Ok, we're halfway through the album, with a few of the best songs on the album still to come.

8) "Scraped" has some crazy beginning, like some demonic barbershop quartet warming up. And then Axl has a singing battle with himself. All this laid over some pretty heavy guitar work. When you're listening to it, you think it's not so bad. But it becomes a forgettable song. Even more so, considering the next track is

9) "Riad 'N the Bedouins". Okay, strange title aside, this is one of my favorite songs on Chinese Democracy. Forget the creepy 35 seconds that start the song with some spooky sounds. But Axl's voice completely takes over once the song kicks into gear, with in-your-face lyrics that made me think of Appetite of Destruction:

Riad N' the Bedouins
Had a plan and thought they'd win
But i dont give a fuck 'bout them
Cause i am crazy
Blazing guitars, top-notch vocals. Awesome song.

10) "Sorry" is alluded to in Chuck Klosterman's review in citing the strange-sounding "but I don't want to do it" lyric. It's a slow-paced song that builds to a crescendo. I start off hating it, but find, by the end of the track, I'm enjoying it. Vocally, it's one strange tune, but ultimately, still pretty good. It probably benefits from being sandwiched between "Riad" and

11) "I.R.S.". This is all Axl's voice. Again, it starts a little weird, but then the chorus hits in that raspy Rose-ian drawl:

Gonna call the President
Gonna call a Private Eye

Gonna get the IRS

Gonna need the FBI
and he seems to be angrily addressing his critics:

I bet you think I'm doing this all for my health
I should've looked again babe at somebody else

Feelin' like I'm done way more than wrong
Feelin' like I'm livin' inside of this song
Feelin' like I'm just too tired to care

Feelin' like I done more than my share

Could it be the way that I carried on

Like a broken record for so long
And I just love this song. The vocals are great and the guitar, yet again, is jaw-droppingly awesome.

12) "Madagascar". What can I say? When I first heard this, as a live bootleg from "Rock in Rio 3" seven or eight years ago, I couldn't get enough of it. So, it's really an "old" G n' R song at this point. It has the sweeping grandeur of the monster songs like "Civil War" and "November Rain". A lot has been made of the looped-in speeches by MLK and dialogue from Cool Hand Luke. Whatever. People who had heard this from Rock in Rio would find a gaping hole in the song had these bits not been included. It remains one of my favorite songs by the band. And Slash had nothing to do with it.

13) "This I Love" is the penultimate track and has a tough act to follow, but it holds its own. Again, you hear it begin and think, "What the hell was Axl thinking?" It's him and a piano. And then some strings. And about a minute in, he starts really wailing and you can feel the emotion in his voice. If you can handle the syrupy music until 2 minutes 10 seconds in, then you detect the faint whiff of guitar. Twenty-five seconds later, it pops to the forefront of the song and takes command. And it carries it through the end of the track. It sounds like a perfect album-ender. But there's still

14) "Prostitute". At this point, I'm usually thinking, we don't need a fourteenth song. And then after a minute of slow build-up, the song picks up and Axl does his thing. But then he pulls back again, teasing. Then crescendo:

I told you when I found you
If there were doubts you
Should be careful and unafraid
Now they surround you
And all that amounts to
Is love that you fed by
Perversion and pain
And then back again. And then a tease of guitar halfway into the song. And more lyrics, and then, with 2 minutes to go, more fierce guitar work. And then a slow fade. And perhaps, this song could have been left off the album. Or perhaps not.

So, there you have it.

People will likely disagree with some, if not all of my assessment. I approached the album with a fan's ear and I still enjoy it, months later, after the novelty wore off.

It's tough to judge a band that recorded what by many is considered the greatest hard rock album of all time.

Still, I will go on record and say this is a pretty damn good effort, and one that I would recommend. But don't come back to me and say you thought it was overwrought, overproduced, overhyped, and overrated. I'm so over that.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Chuck Klosterman is God:
"Sometimes it seems like Axl believes every single Guns N' Roses song needs to employ every single thing that Guns N' Roses has the capacity to do—there needs to be a soft part, a hard part, a falsetto stretch, some piano plinking, some R&B; bullshit, a little Judas Priest, subhuman sound effects, a few Robert Plant yowls, dolphin squeaks, wind, overt sentimentality, and a caustic modernization of the blues. When he's able to temporarily balance those qualities (which happens on the title track and on "I.R.S.," the album's two strongest rock cuts), it's sprawling and entertaining and profoundly impressive. The soaring vocals crush everything. But sometimes Chinese Democracy suffers from the same inescapable problem that paralyzed proto-epics like "Estranged" and "November Rain": It's as if Axl is desperately trying to get some unmakeable dream song from inside his skull onto the CD, and the result is an overstuffed maelstrom that makes all the punk dolts scoff."

That's it. I'm buying the record.

Thanks, Bill!