BY JEFF LEVEN
Glancing across the best releases of the last year, you see a lot of smart albums, a lot of thoughtful albums, a lot of beautifully crafted albums, and even the occasional funky or soulful album. What you don’t see nearly enough of, however, are truly inspired RAWK albums – loud, violent, crashing things that tear you out of your seat by the throat, make you fiercely throw your devil-horn metal finger-gesture (you know what I mean) up in the air, and bang your head and twirl your hair until you’ve nearly turned blue.
Maybe it’s the pimply yawp of my still not-quite-domesticated adolescent boyhood talking, but it’s been way too long since an album beat me up, scared the hell out of me, or even gave me a nice ear-ringing rocked-out headache. Here, then, are two brand new releases (from two of the three administrators of Nirvana LLC, no less) that I thought might offer some hope:
Courtney Love”American Sweetheart”
Courtney Love was probably born too late. There was a point in time when the rock n’ roll audience wasn’t quite so jaded and demanding of its disposable heroes. It used to be that you could sabotage interviews, show up to big events all high and disheveled, fall offstage and lose half your clothes in the process, mouth off incoherently in a confused rage, and generally make a twisted idiot of yourself and have people at least tolerate it, find some shabby glory or meaningful iconoclasm in it, and if you pulled it off with enough swagger and casual nihilism, maybe even love you for it. That’s the Jim Morrison story, ain’t it?
Unfortunately for Courtney Love, between rock’s angry roots and its overexposed present, the masses have burnt out on a lot of the better storylines. As a result, there’s not much Courtney can do with herself that hasn’t been done before and that people don’t yawn or scoff at. Marry a cult hero, spiral into junkiedom together until one of you dies? Try Sid and Nancy. Alienate half his fans through your alleged ego and questionable stewardship of his legacy? Yoko got there first. Turn into a massive attention-getting machine through the selective showing of skin and occasional interpersonal controversy? How ’bout Madonna. In the shadow of these precedents, the uncharitable masses have seemed largely resistant to treating Courtney as much more than an overwrought clich, which, despite even the best of her efforts to become one, she just isn’t, at least not completely.
For all her annoying antics, the woman has some talent. As she proved in Larry Flynt, as an actress Love is considerably better than, say, Madonna, and while Hole wasn’t the world’s most original band, when compared to a lot of other freeze-dried crap that thrived in the 90s (Collective Soul, Bush, etc.), it at least sounds alive and angry. Yet despite Hole’s best efforts, Love still hasn’t made an album strong and thoughtful enough to claim for her a legacy as a meaningful rock icon, an opus that roots her fame in musical substance, rather than morbid tabloid fascination.
American Sweetheart is Courtney Love’s long-awaited attempt at musical and spiritual redemption. Produced in part by Jim Barber, her ex-boyfriend (whose house she was busy trashing on the night of her recent drug arrest) with the help of such songwriters as Bernie Taupin (known for his collaborations with Elton John), it not only is Courtney’s first new music in years, but it’s also her first full-fledged solo album, a statement of, by, for and about Courtney. So how is it?
I wanted to like American Sweetheart a lot more than I actually do. From the Vargas-girl cover art to song titles like “But Julian, I’m A Little Bit Older Than You” (a reference to Strokes singer Julian Casablancas), this thing looked like it had all the makings of a classic kiss-off. At least in its better moments, it partially makes good on its promise of raw rock n’ roll. With a frayed voice that sounds something like Patti Smith on Nyquil, Courtney manages to make some legitimate noise on songs like “Hello,” while decadent and debauched lyrics (which, oddly, rarely are the same as those printed in the liner notes) like those on “Sunset Strip” remind us that Courtney is damaged goods, has major issues, and should be handled with extreme caution. In these moments she succeeds in being enough of a fire-breathing rock monstress to remind us how pathetic a pastiche of true venom indie kitsch-merchants like The Donnas are, let alone Avril Lavigne. Next to Courtney’s junkie-floozy feral rock bitchcraft, they all come off as Abercrombie models at best.
The flipside of this fury is that American Sweetheart somehow manages to be simultaneously the most self-conscious album I’ve heard in ages, and still among the most haplessly self-indulgent. Endlessly referential, Love appropriates Ramones lyrics, makes fun of an ex who plays Zeppelin songs over and over, baits Eminem, and generally tries way too hard to thread herself into the larger rock narrative, a task barely helped by the fact that some of the songs are just atrocious – particularly the horrifically-sung “Life Despite God,” or the Trixter-esque hair metal power ballad of “Never Gonna Be The Same.”
The picture you get is one of a frazzled Courtney bashing around in the studio trying to do something really important, with little in the way of discipline or humility being imposed on her by the weight of the undertaking or any of her collaborators. For an album about sex and drugs and desperation, it has surprisingly little real drama or insight, replacing all these things instead with narcissism and some well-copped poses. Her anger is the anger of a spoiled child rather than that of a substance-addled Job. As such, what distinguishes her from the rock gods and goddesses she would emulate is some added essence of spirit – Courtney is a wreck without the poetry, and American Sweetheart is all booming thunder without the soothing rain.
Far more under-wrought is Probot, Dave Grohl’s homespun tribute to the glorious grisly past of underground heavy metal. Featuring eleven different lead singers from such unsung legends as Celtic Frost (a pioneering death metal band whose career was crushed by one particularly hamfisted stab at commercial appeal), Sepultura (the pride and glory of Brazilian metal), and Corrosion of Conformity, Probot emerged somewhat by accident. Undoubtedly galvanized by his work with the Queens of the Stone Age, Grohl made a series of basement tapes to get his proverbial rocks off in between stints with the far poppier Foo Fighters. Realizing that his fame and notoriety might help in getting real metal folk to sing on these tracks, Grohl soon turned Probot into a chance to throw some money and attention in the direction of the metal bands he loved as a teenager, pay tribute to their legacies, and indulge his fantasies of playing with guys like Motorhead’s immortal Lemmy Kilmister.
As a result of the way it was constructed, Probot is an informal and scattered affair. Each vocalist wrote lyrics and sang on a song roughly crafted to fit his style, and Dave plays drums, bass, and guitar underneath them. As such, it’s an interesting litmus test for his capabilities, and some surprises result. For one thing, Dave is a much better bass player than one might have imagined – on songs like “Big Sky” or “The Emerald Law,” he pulls off the low-register duties with dexterity and aplomb (although Lemmy clearly takes the cake with his bass work on “Shake Your Blood.”) As far as guitars go, Dave mostly limits himself to churning out riffs, leaving the album’s only two solos to singer/guitarist Wino from the Obsessed and erstwhile Soundgarden alum Kim Thayil. Having recorded these songs on a whim, Dave can be forgiven for doing relatively little to vary much from the crunchy side of his Foo Fighters guitar tones, and given this fact it’s impressive that he manages to make the songs as varied as they are overall.
On first listen the main thing that just doesn’t sound right is, ironically, the drums. F
or all his range and talent in all other areas, Probot reveals that Dave Grohl isn’t really meant to be a thrash metal drummer. While he pulls off the card-board slapping hardcore punk style just fine on “Access Babylon,” and comes tantalizingly close to a real metal sound on “Red War,” by and large Dave is just too slow on the draw, as riffs demanding massive double kick drums, frenzied symbol fills, and triple time snare splatters are instead accompanied by under-timed arena rock beats on thin-sounding drum heads. So maybe this explains why Nirvana never covered Slayer!
The vocalists, for their part, do what they can to put their imprint on each song. Particularly noteworthy are D.R.I.’s Kurt Brecht’s Mackayesque agro-punk on “Silent Spring,” and Wino’s sci-fi warbling on “The Emerald Law.” Meanwhile, the best effort award goes to Mercyful Fate’s King Diamond, the cartoonish Satanic reverend with a multiple-octave operatic range and a tendency to use every note of it on any given song. His squeals and groans on “Sweet Dreams” are, depending on how you look at it, deeply harrowing or gut-wrenchingly funny. The only real stiffs in the bunch are Cronos’ halting “Centuries of Sin” (I definitely don’t remember Venom sounding this forced) and Cathedral/Napalm Death singer Lee Dorrian’s belabored attempt to make something epic out of one of Grohl’s more ponderous compositions on “Ice Cold Man.”
At the end of the day, however, the best track by far is Grohl’s collaboration with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister – “Shake Your Blood.” Capitalizing on Grohl’s slower, more rhythmic drumming and Lemmy’s propulsive bass, the track sounds and feels as menacing and predatory as a real Motorhead song, a truly organic standout in an album where the concept and the effort of the product often overshadows the actual music contained within.
Taken as a whole, Probot is an endearing idea that both suffers from and revels in its lack of focus and pretension. It’s a nice, refreshing, loud album featuring a bunch of faces who probably deserve more attention from the casual rock fan than they have ever gotten before, or probably will ever get after, this collaboration. But as an album it is often less than the sum of its parts – an all-star game where the pitcher and catcher never quite get into sync, a reunion where people don’t get to talk for more than a minute or two, a ten day tour of Europe with only a day in any given country. Probot is an easily-digested way of getting a rough sketch of the vitality and variety of underground metal, but is not really a fully self-sufficient contribution to the genre in its own right. A heavy metal appetizer, if you will, albeit tasty in its own right.