Sunday, November 23, 2008

U CHOOSE -- TORTURED ART OR PITCHER OF BEER AND A WHORE? Not a trick question

GUNS N' ROSES Chinese Democracy

Frank Zappa once said something on music journalists: People who can't write interviewing people who can't think for people who can't read.

If you picked up today's Los Angeles Times and saw Ann Powers' review of Guns n' Roses (actually, Axl Rose's) Chinese Democracy, another aphorism came to mind: People who don't get hard rock and can't write about it, doing so -- at length -- for editors and a readership who dislike it.

Powers writes, seriously: "Rose's music tells the saga of the mutually abusive relationship between the freight train's axle and the rose it crushes, a potentially poisonous flower that keeps growing back." (This is from a good review, one which fatuously delivers a comparison to "Citizen Kane." "Axl Rose can finally take a bow," Powers concludes.)

Look for it in Da Capo's Best Music Writing of 2008-2009, presumably pre-vetted by the series editor, maybe looking to get into the Times' Calendar section once or twice before it's driven out of business by Tribune Company in the next couple of years.

So DD rode the Pasadena Gold Line to BestBuy and snagged a copy to hear the alleged sonic wrestling match between the freight train axle and the rose.

Chinese Democracy is a collection of witless over-produced hard rock tunes, undistinguished in accomplishment but remarkable in that it took three times as long as the Iraq war to make. If one has listened to poor to middling hard rock and metal records for forty years and still enjoyed the majority of them, in this grand river Chinese Democracy is never awful and almost never worse than fair. But it is never quite good, even momentarily. The first two thirds of it is over-arranged big rock with all the roll exterminated. The last third is big-sounding over-arranged balladry. You can't tap your feet to any of it. Neither can you bang your head. And it is never joyous or even remotely humorous. Therefore, one cannot get quickly and satisfyingly drunk to it.

While loaded with melody, Chinese Democracy surprises in that it contains almost zero memorable hooks. ("Street of Dreams" almost reverses the trend -- that's almost. The next memorable thing is entitled "Catcher in the Rye." Really. Look, this is a guy who must get tears in his eyes over the rock opera version of Frank Wedekind's "Fruhling's Erwachung.")

Rose is not much of a lyricist, anymore. (He might have been ca. "Welcome to the Jungle.") However, whatever's being sung, wherever you drop the laser, it's about his pain -- pain from the past, pain from lovers, memory pain, enemy pain. Perhaps the only thing left out is pain from impacted wisdom teeth in middle age.

Chinese Democracy is stuffed to the gills with stupendous guitar playing, often complicated and terrifying, maybe more thoroughly tweezed and produced than ever before. However, relatively speaking, very few people listen to heavy rock records because the solos are shit hot but everything else is aggressively so-so.

Axl Rose sings and screams -- and when he can no longer always do it on key, Auto-Tune has his back, which adds yet another technical layer of ornate filigree to the whole whiz-bang.

If you were a fan of late-Eighties hard rock, that LA style, bombastic codas and declining riffs overlain with vocals aiming for great drama, there are echoes all through Chinese Democracy. And then there's all the quizzical and quixotic rubbish in the in-between places -- bits of speech from Martin Luther King, flamenco guitar, an accapella interlude employed as a non sequitur -- spackling up the album's holes like pieces of chewing gum.

It's a marvelous feat of engineering.

Summary: The Sorrows of Middle-Aged Werther, final act yet to be determined. Think -- work of prematurely old rock star, long overtaken by obsessive-compulsive disorders.


ZZ TOP Live from Texas

The omega to Chinese Democracy's alpha. A "best of" collection, played avuncular, tight and raw in Texas. Songs about a shack, a whorehouse just outside La Grange, about come drops adorning a lover's neck, about going downtown for tush, about eating barbecue. You know all the songs, you can dance to them, they're made for getting smashed to, and they're amusing. The guitar is oiled, the vocals quite frequently off-the-cuff and laden with funny asides. The guys in ZZ Top are in their sixties and they make the act of looking comical cool and dignified. And even if you're not a stupendous guitar player, you can play most of the stuff on this record. (Plus there's a bonus track of stand-up comedy, ZZ Top-style.)

Live from Texas is much simpler to describe than Chinese Democracy. When you go to BestBuy, get it instead.

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