Monday, April 5, 2010

On Slash's solo debut, highlights come from Myles Kennedy, other guests

Slash is probably the most celebrated rock guitar hero to have hit it big just before the grunge scene of the early '90s eclipsed the hard rock of the late '80s as the music of choice for long-haired teen-age boys. In retrospect, it's funny that Nirvana had both Kurt Cobain, a tormented guitarist and singer/screamer who grew up cutting his teeth on "Immigrant Song," and drummer Dave Grohl, a John Bonham aficionado who was destined to be a future bandmate of John Paul Jones's; at the same time, in Guns n' Roses, the ability to replicate any guitar lick from "Whole Lotta Love" came as second nature to Slash, but it was a feat reserved for much more recent work -- especially whenever in the company of drummer Jason Bonham.

Events of the last few years have painted Slash as the victim of not one but two unreliable singers. First, with Guns n' Roses, it was the on-again-off-again Axl Rose, while more currently his band Velvet Revolver is on hold looking to replace the shaky Scott Weiland, himself another Led Zeppelin devotee. So in the meantime, Slash releases what is considered his first solo album. Self-titled but with the self-explanatory "R&FN'R" appearing on the album cover beneath a top-hatted skull and crossbones, this bad-ass disc has double the memorable riffs and songs of Jimmy Page's own singular venture into the full-length solo album format, 1988's Outrider, and about four times the help Page had in writing it all.

When Slash started recording his album last year, he had just come off of a summer filled with touring Europe with Jason Bonham in tow, playing almost strictly cover songs -- described once as whatever they wanted to play at the time. In a way, this studio set comes from the same school of thought, only substituted for an open book of pre-written favorites is the window of opportunity for Slash to collaborate with his in-studio guests. No cover material appears on the disc, and there's nothing that wasn't written either by Slash alone or with Slash and his Supernatural-like array of singers. In other words, there is no songwriting contribution from non-performing pop hitmakers. This is all the brainchild of Slash and his fellow musicians.

This fact makes it all the more earth-shattering when the opening tracks roll off with some made-for-radio hit potential. "Ghost," with Ian Astbury of The Cult, and "Crucify the Dead," with Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath. The first two songs speak of killing ghosts and crucifying the dead, setting an ominous tone for the album. If there's any complaint about either of these tunes, it's that Ozzy sounds like he's been autotuned to make up for some vocal shortcomings. (Also listen carefully for Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters on backing vocals, along with the track's producer and co-songwriter, Kevin Churko. Since Churko sings on the track, he gets a pass under the "non-performing hitmaker" clause; this is the sole instance a non-lead singer is co-credited on the album with songwriting.) The third track features a contribution from Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, and the only female artist on this disc puts on her best Alanis Morrisette imitation to deliver a part-sultry, part-screaming but constantly rockin' performance on the track "Beautiful Dangerous."

On track four comes Myles Kennedy, the voice of Alter Bridge, the voice of Slash's upcoming concert tour, and the voice that rocked out with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham in a rehearsal studio less than two years ago. Kennedy gets to do two tracks with Slash on this album, and he outdoes himself on both. Both "Back from Cali" and "Starlight," track 12, are prime examples of the kind of song you can't help but like before the guitar introduction is even over (think "Stairway to Heaven," "Ten Years Gone" or Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge"). The track after Kennedy's first contribution is sung by Chris Cornell, the voice of both Soundgarden and Audioslave, and another one of the guys on that short list of speculated singers tapped to replace Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin a couple of years ago. There was no fuel to that fire, but the lyrics of "Promise" deal with putting out a fire.

The sixth track, "By the Sword," opens with acoustic guitar, for a change of pace, and quickly follows with a voice echoing the same riff played. The track soon evolves into one I feel certain could possibly enter the realm of classic one day. When Slash switches to electric guitar and the bass and drums enter, you get the steady John Bonham feel of "Black Dog" or "Kashmir" backing the same riff, which now appears so much more Zeppelin-like when played loud. The voice on this track comes from Andrew Stockdale, of a band called Wolfmother that endured its fair share of comparisons to Led Zeppelin, especially since his Australian band's debut song "Woman" sounded like a new take on Led Zeppelin's first two albums squeezed into a curt single of under three minutes (but with Jack White influencing the vocals and Keith Emerson influencing the organ by way of Jon Lord). Here, Stockdale's refined voice soars over Slash's heavy arrangement. If your budget allows for only one 99-cent download from this album, this is probably the one to get.

Allow me to interject here that by this point in the album, it's been mostly loud throughout. I interject that here because that's exactly what I was thinking during my first run-through of the album, and this is exactly when the desire to hear something a little more quiet is satiated. From the heavy rock of "By the Sword," the CD transitions into the sweet and soft tones of Maroon 5's Adam Levine on a sweet tune called "Gotten." Just to demonstrate Slash's ability to discern light and shade, the string-backed guitar solo represents a huge crescendo in the song, but it's only temporary as it is bookended by another quiet vocal part. The track's a sleeper. In the next song, "Doctor Alibi," Lemmy Kilmeister of Motörhead strains his way through a full-on rocker, which is also a great way to describe the ninth track, "Watch This Dave."

Nearly every song on the album features the drums of Josh Freese, but "Watch This" (or "Watch This Dave") is one of the few exceptions. Taking the kit here is the aforementioned Dave Grohl, who was already in his Them Crooked Vultures phase when approached by Slash to sing on a track. (Grohl has said he told Slash he wouldn't sing but would play drums, so that's how that came about.) This is also the only instrumental on the album. Jimmy Page's Outrider had three instrumentals on it, two of which meander into several different themes that in no way approach the dynamics John Paul Jones would achieve on the multifaceted instrumentals of his two solo albums, Zooma and The Thunderthief. It's almost as if, on Slash's only instrumental offering on this disc, he's learned how to write the ultimate instrumental in under four minutes. If your budget allows for only two 99-cent downloads from this album, make sure this is one.

It was just before this instrumental that, on my first time through the disc, I started to think back on how the presence of each individual singer somehow diverted my attention from the guitarist heard throughout, the guitarist whose solo album this is, the guitarist whose work ought to be carefully measured in any review. He's also the guitarist responsible for some amazing and unstoppable solos in "November Rain" and "Sweet Child o' Mine." Aside from the visual sway of Axl Rose in those videos, Slash's guitar sound was often the signature of any Guns n' Roses tune. Was I finding that to be the case on this album? Not so much, save for "By the Sword" and "Watch This." On those tracks, Slash's guitar work definitely shines through. (Ironically, Grohl's drumming on the instrumental track also stands out, making it sound like a full-band composition when in fact "Watch This" is the only track where the songwriting is credited entirely to Slash.)

Track 10, "I Hold On," with guest singer (and co-producer) Kid Rock gives another opportunity for an extended guitar solo from Slash, saving the song from being a veritable throwaway. Yet track 11, "Nothing to Say," is anything but a throwaway. When Guns n' Roses was at the top of their game, the only band that was comparable in attitude was Metallica. On this track, Slash channels his inner Kirk Hammet while M Shadows of Avenged Sevenfold wails away about voices with nothing to say. The guitar work in here recalls the hits Metallica recently had with "Cyanide" and "The Day that Never Comes," which itself recalled Master of Puppets-era Metallica as well as Ritchie Blackmore. So here's Slash making a proper throwback to speed metal and guitar histrionics, and it comes off as genuine.

The track that follows the second contribution from Myles Kennedy is "Saint is a Sinner Too," a number with acoustic guitar throughout and a percussive/orchestral buildup the likes of which are unheard elsewhere on the album. Handling the vocals on this one is Rocco DeLuca, one of the singers who joined Slash & Friends onstage last year. In the setting of this song, DeLuca is obviously restrained somewhat. Iggy Pop, however, is the opposite of restrained on the final track, a song called "We're All Gonna Die" with some base lyrics that make public urination and misogyny expressions of careless abandon. Sure, it's a wholesome song for the kids to enjoy and a curious choice thematically to close the album.

All in all, Slash's solo debut offers a lot to enjoy, including some great guitar parts that do some justice to bolstering his reputation of old. Yet it is from the guest vocalists that much of the CD truly gains its identity. Myles Kennedy, the only singer who appears twice, is not the least of those. Because I'm a Led Zeppelin fan first and foremost, I can't help but be reminded of the way he could have paired up with Jimmy Page on some similar songs and fit right in. If all I ever get to hear of Kennedy's extracurricular activities from the era of Alter Bridge's time off are his two contributions to Slash's album, I'm very satisfied.

Their "Back from Cali" is one of those songs you'll be singing along with after a couple of listens. On it, Kennedy also coughs up one of the best lyrical hooks of the disc: "You'll have to carry me back from Cali, the angel city where the devils play." Meanwhile, the instantly catchy "Starlight" is another one with a memorable melody, but its huge melodic leaps on the chorus might preclude the tune from ever being performed on amateur karaoke night by us mere mortals. Save this track for the twice-proven songwriting team of Kennedy and Slash, which we should thankfully expect to see in concert soon as they perform songs from Slash's past and this legitimately pleasing solo debut.

1 comment:

  1. In my opnion the best pure guitar fueled rock record in ten years. It has sometjing for everyone, every song is great as a stand alone. Great review and thanks from a true fan of both Zep and GnR.


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