Friday, December 5, 2008

First Blush - Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy

We haven’t first-blushed anything in a while around here. Part of that is due to the Buenos Aires move, but also because there just haven’t been the released worth reacting to in real time. But now, from Los Angeles and parts-unkown, comes a release more deserving of a First Blush than any we’ve seen previously. Coming 17 years after their last real album, and utilizing only one of Guns N Roses’ real members, Chinese Democracy is technically the most anticipated album in history. Rumors indicate that over 13 million dollars were spent on the release, which is amazing for a band whose prime was so long ago. I could pontificate further, but rather, let’s find out what all the fuss is about, shall we? OK, Axl, let’s see whatcha got!

Track 1 – Chinese Democracy
Distant sirens are always a risky way to begin an album, even if they are actually guitars meant to sound like sirens. But that’s the band’s first salvo in 17 years. Meanwhile, hushed voices argue in some language (presumably Mandarin?) - are they the hushed voices of political freedom? Only Axl knows. Speaking of Axl, he joins in at 1:20 with his trademark wail. Halfway through, the song definitely sounds as though it’s from a different time (that time being roughly 1994), but there is no doubting that it rocks, which is what we’re here for, right? “It don’t really matter, I guess you’ll find out for yourself.” Lyrics were never Axl’s strong suit, so why the high-minded title if you’re just going to ramble about nothing? I guess it’s not nothing to him. Anyway, so far, I’m impressed.

Track 2 – Shackler’s Revenge
Heavy and dissonant for the sake of being dissonant and heavy. Wow are these lyrics bad: “Don’t ever try to tell me how much you care for me.” Well through the song, I find myself uncompelled to write anything. With an album runtime of 71 minutes, maybe they should have left this one out, or at least not made it track #2. Or maybe it’s all downhill from here. If so, I have some laundry to tend to.

Track 3 – Better
We’re not in classic GN’R territory here. Axl is trying to sound inspirational. His strong suit has always been faux anger, but this song is working anyway. This track is halfway between Alice in Chains and Helmet’s Betty album. Nice evolution, but again, very ’94. Perhaps these 14 tracks are meant to represent each of the years that have passed in the making of this album? THAT would be quite the concept. I can’t wait to see what the band does in response to 9/11 and Katrina!

Track 4 – Street Of Dreams
Uh-oh, Axl sat down at the piano again. And there’s some acoustic strumming going on. This may be November Rain, part III (yes, Estranged was part II). 45 seconds in, Axl is really Joe Cockering it up here. I must admit, it’s bringing a smile to my face that is only 40% based on amusement. It’s a little melodramatic, but not quite as heavy-handed as the Use Your Illusion melodrama. But I could do without this one. 3:55 in, Axl has discovered protools. That’s not a good thing, and we end on an incredibly cheesy chord from the string section.

Track 5 – If the World
I just noticed that there isn’t much bass work of note on any of these songs. I must admit that the band misses Duff McKagan. I never, ever, thought I would say something like that about duff McKagan. Axl’s flexing his range and this one just kind of plods along. But it’s inoffensive in its plodding. This song doesn’t bother me at all.

Track 6 – There Was A Time
Despite my hopes that this is a cover of a superb James Brown hidden gem, it’s not. “It was the wrong time for you, it was the wrong time for me, it was the wrong time for anyone, but it looks like it’s meant to be.” This song could be about anything, but I want to assume that it’s the story of Chinese Democracy, any and all definitions. “But there was a tiiiiiiimmmMMME.” OK, he just won me over, despite the annoying strings. A ton of guitar solos on every track, which is great. The solos themselves aren’t great, and definitely below the standards set by Slash in the band’s heyday, but if they just tried to gloss over his absence with heavy riffing, the result would have been a disaster. Incidentally, there are seven different people credited with “guitar” on the album, and I have no idea who plays on which songs. 4:05 and Axl is really wailing right now. No protools needed. Damn. That’s right, I said dayamn.

Track 7 – Catcher in the Rye
Can you imagine GN’R titling a song Catcher in the Rye back in the day? There is no “Back Off Bitch” to be found on this album, apparently. Now is when I reiterate that faux anger is Axl’s strong suit. I’d like to hear more of it here. Incidentally, this one sounds like Keane or Maroon 5 covering a Guns N’ Roses song. No, that isn’t a compliment to anybody.

Track 8 – Scraped
A capella opening (but it’s more “Ah! Capella! Make it stop!”). But from there, we start to rock again. “Don’t you try to stop us now. I just refuse. Don’t you try to stop us now. ‘Cause I just won’t let you!” Wailing and riffing galore. This is what we came for.

Track 9 – Riad N’ the Bedouins
A loose, but kickin’ track with aggressive vocals. “I don’t give a fuck ‘bout them, ‘cause I am cra-zy!” Axl used to sing, “You’re crazy,” but maybe he’s somehow become even more self-centered? That’s what happens when you break up a band and then continue using its moniker when you really just mean yourself.

Track 10 – Sorry
Oooh, dark and spooky. “You’d like to think that some way it’s me and not you.” Yeah, Axl’s not very well read, is he? This song’s not bad – very late 90’s, early 00’s, post-Soundgarden bluesy whatever. (Actually, it most closely resembles the supremely mediocre post-Blind Melon outfit, Unified Theory, but nobody’s heard of them – quite rightly – yet this works.) “Close your eyes, all well and good, I’ll kick your ass like I said that I would.” He really means this stuff – at least he thinks he does. This time my smile is 95% amusement-based.

Track 11 – I.R.S.
Stompy track that features Axl front and center. This is the closest we’re going to get to rap-rock, but he’s definitely singing each word. “Gonna call the president. Gonna call a private eye. Gonna get the IRS. Gonna get myself the FBI.” By the way, I’m pretty sure this is a love song. 3:31 – extended wail that just blew my damn mind. This might be the best track on the album (guitar solos are top-notch on this one, too). OK, that was actually like Nickelback, but perfected. I’m as shocked as you are that I think such a concept is a good thing. No, that still doesn’t leave me with any hope for Nickelback.

Track 12 – Madagascar
Horn and string arrangements are followed by electro drums and Axl sounding tender. Then we get melodramatic again, but once again it works. The second half of this disc is far superior to the first. Now there are audio clips by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” spliced with far too many others, including the same Cool Hand Luke clip they used on Civil War. The track has degenerated to nonsense. It cannot be taken seriously (even though it’s actually a good song). Who let that idea pass the smell test? Never mind, I know who.

Track 13 – This I Love
Uhhh…. sounds like a Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. “I just can’t let it die, ‘cause her heart’s just like miiiine.” Even for a vanity project, this track is far too indulgent. I foresee them playing the song as the last encore while even the die-hard fans stream for the exits.

Track 14 – Prostitute
This is sounding really cheesy for a song called Prostitute. “Iiiiii saw the damage in you, my fortunate one – the ending of youth.” How perfectly unsubtle. The album ends by mellowing out into a strings-only finish. I don't expect to play these last two songs very often.

On the whole, my first blush take is that this album is surprisingly good. Because, let’s be honest, everyone thought this would be Axl’s ego just taking a dump on a record. Does it have anything to do with China or democracy? Not as far as I can tell. Most of the lyrics are horrendous, but that comes as no surprise. Will the album be a hit? There isn't much out there like this right now, and the brand name is relatively useless. I don't hear a smash single, but at the same time, a lot of people will really dig the album as a whole. Was it worth the 17 year wait? Um, sure. Is it on par with Appetite for Destruction? Of course not, but its unevenness perfectly matches that of the Illusion records. What's lacking is the rebellious persona that Axl wore so well in the past. But if a 46 year old redhead with braids in his hair tried that, would any of us take him at all seriously? In sum, Chinese Democracy is probably as good as it could possibly be.

1 comment:

Kozy said...

My favorite line of the review, "I can’t wait to see what the band does in response to 9/11 and Katrina!" Good stuff !!