It’s been a weird week.
I got hired full time at my shitty job. Up until now, I’ve been working through a temporary service, but I’d reached the end of the agreed-upon term, and it was come on full time or be cast out into the street. With the loss of temporary status went the attending privileges, including my guaranteed immunity to random-draft overtime. Twice a week now I’ll be pulling 12-hour shifts. In case there’s any doubt in your mind, 12-hour shifts suck. A lot.
Naturally, I’ve re-sent my resume to literally everyone with an office in northern Maryland. As Murphy would have it, though, circumstances have just intervened. I found out today that my last place of employment (in sunny Indiana) closed its doors for good. No notice, no severance pay, just a big “get out” from management. We all kind of saw it coming, which is one of the reasons I got out when I did, but it’s still a bit of a shock, especially for the folks I know who still worked there.
For my part, of course, this renders the top reference number on my resume useless. In fact, most of my reference numbers are useless – Face is still going, but under new management, and it’s unlikely that they’d give me the best of references. Plus, I’ve just discovered that the editor who hired me in Tennessee no longer works for that paper, so anyone trying my references in order will get a) a disconnection notice, b) a new editor who likely has never heard of me, and c) an owner/publisher with whom I parted on bad terms.
Yeah, I’d hire me.
It’s a good thing the economy is in such robust shape these days, or I’d be worried.
* * * * *
As I was picking up the new Jane’s Addiction CD this week, I tried to explain to the clerk my bizarre music-buying habits, especially as they pertain to this particular purchase. While most people I know buy CDs only after they’ve heard a song or two and are certain that it’s good, I know months in advance which ones I’m going to end up buying. In the case of albums as apparently ill-advised as a new Jane’s Addiction record, I then spend the weeks leading up to the release dreading it, hoping that it doesn’t suck.
This is a special case, however, because Jane’s Addiction has always meant more than just a bunch of songs to me. In the late ’80s, Jane’s, under the direction of anorexic-looking madman Perry Farrell, released a string of the most uncompromising, visionary records the major labels have ever seen. If you had to explain to someone in 1988 what “Mountain Song” sounded like, you’d be left with very few reference points – Led Zeppelin, sort of, but bigger, like a seventy-mile-long steamroller.
Looking back, it’s clear that Farrell and company first presaged the entire alt-rock movement with 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking, and then outdid it with 1990’s Ritual de lo Habitual, rendering the whole thing moot before it began. These are records so far ahead of their time that were they released today, they’d still sound forward-looking – Habitual especially, with its epic sprawl and dynamic atmospheres. None of the Nirvana-come-latelies that followed in that album’s path have reached as high as Jane’s did with the 10-minute “Three Days,” or the progressive-tinged “Then She Did…”
But there’s more to it than that. As I’m sure is the case with a lot of music fans my age, my first brush with corporate censorship revolved around Ritual de lo Habitual, and Warner Bros.’ insistence that the band replace the “offensive” cover art with something more “pleasant” to “grandmothers” who shop at “Wal-Mart.” The original art depicted papier-mache statues of three naked people in bed together, and by today’s standards, it’s fairly tasteful. Thirteen years ago, however, it was a big deal.
And I know it’s easy to impress a 16-year-old, but Farrell’s decision to scrap the cover entirely and replace it with a text block rendering of the First Amendment seemed downright heroic. Farrell further gained my respect when he decided, mere months later, that Jane’s Addiction had gone as far as it could with Habitual, and broke up the band before it could get stale. Even at 16, I was familiar with bands that had gone on too long, and inwardly applauded Farrell’s nerve and artistic conviction.
And then the money started coming in. Farrell quit his association with Lollapalooza, the traveling festival he helped create, in 1991 due to its increasing commercialization. It took 12 years to get him back in the saddle, and along the way he produced a bland side project (Porno for Pyros, although their second album, Good God’s Urge, had its moments) and stuck his name on a terrible electronica record (Song Yet To Be Sung). His Jane’s compatriot Dave Navarro, one of the most inventive guitarists of his generation, joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers for one so-so album (One Hot Minute) and also affixed his name to a lousy solo record (Trust No One).
Worse by far, though, was the money-hungry resurrection of Jane’s Addiction, who came together (minus original bassist Eric Avery, who was replaced by, of all people, Flea) for a reunion tour in 1997, complete with cash-in “rare tracks” compilation (the utterly useless Kettle Whistle). The effort seemed half-hearted at best, but now Farrell and company have decided to go whole-hog. Since no other project has lined the band members’ pockets quite like Jane’s Addiction did, they’ve reunited once more to headline Lollapalooza – minus Avery again, his spot this time covered by Chris Chaney. And of course, they’ve brought along some recorded product to shill. They’ve called it Strays.
You can see how one might consider this a triumph of the commercial over the artistic, and if you’re feeling melodramatic, the final death knell for a generation’s youthful, wide-eyed idealism. Even the jacket art of Strays is cynical and boring – the first of their cover images to not depict nipples, amusingly enough, it’s just a group photo, shot in a studio and digitally inserted in front of a landscape backdrop. This is not a cover worth fighting for, not an artistic statement worth preserving. It lies there and does nothing.
But maybe it’s the Waterworld effect – if you expect an absolute disaster, a halfway competent work will seem like genius. Or maybe I’m just mellowing out, and my youthful, wide-eyed idealism died a long time ago. Whatever the reason, I like Strays quite a bit. And whatever else this record may be, I can assure you it’s not a cash-in marketing tool. Jane’s worked on this, they crafted it when they could have just rushed something out, and for that they deserve at least one open-minded listen.
The funny thing is that Jane’s still play like it’s 1991. Yes, they’re older and a little mellower, but the songs and the band’s performance of them sounds very much like the last decade of pissers and moaners (what I like to call the “days of whine and poseurs”) never happened. Strays is a big, joyous record, with all the wailing guitar solos of the Guns ‘n’ Roses days, and liberal splashes of Led Zeppelin’s epic sense. After 12 years of guitarists following Saint Cobain’s lead, hitting the distortion pedal and calling it dynamics, it’s refreshing to hear someone like Navarro who knows what that word means. His tones slither and waft around this album, caressing it to life.
That’s not to say it doesn’t rock. One of the primary criticisms I’ve read of Strays is that it sounds like nu-metal, but that’s not true. It sounds like the nu-metal prototype Jane’s always was, molten riffs crashing into funk and Cure-style soundscapes, with a splash of electronics this time out. Jane’s started the whole mess, remember, and their sound was hijacked by the likes of Korn and ripped to shreds by Disturbed, Staind and other no-talents. We need a band like this to show us just how far this music has strayed from its original purpose – you’ve never heard a Jane’s Addiction song about how crummy life is, and you likely never will.
I don’t want to give the impression that Strays is a masterpiece, or even on the same level as Jane’s early works. It isn’t. These songs don’t have the same sense of unlimited adventure as the ones on Habitual – you never get the feeling with this album that anything can happen, that the floor could drop away at any moment. Strays also contains the worst Jane’s song ever, the acoustic blah “Everybody’s Friend,” which is almost spared by its nifty middle section, but not quite. Closer “To Match the Sun” fizzles before it can do anything, and “Hypersonic” doesn’t deserve its awe-inspiring drum beat.
But for surprising stretches of this record, all is right with the world. “Wrong Girl” is a neck-snapping slice of Zeppelin funk in odd tempos, “The Riches” percolates nicely until it flips on its own ear in typical Jane’s fashion, “Strays” is a good old clean guitar romp, and the album’s highlight, “Price I Pay,” condenses a side-long suite into five and a half minutes. Along the way, you’ll be taken aback by how much this new Jane’s Addiction actually sounds like Jane’s Addiction.
The hallmark of this album is its unrelenting positivity, a trait that all by itself sets it apart from the legions of Jane’s wannabes that sprung up in their wake. Farrell remains one of the most idiosyncratic frontmen on the scene, simply because he always sings and never screams, growls or raps. His delivery is so full of joy that even when his lyrics are accusatory (“Just Because”) or sarcastic (“The Riches”), he sounds on the verge of ecstasy. And it’s that sense of fun, of pure delight, that’s been slowly and painfully excised from so-called alternative music in the 13 years since Jane’s albums.
Strays may not be an instant classic, and it probably won’t irrevocably change the musical landscape like Shocking and Habitual did. Surprisingly, though, I think that’s a shame, because until hearing it, I didn’t realize how much we needed Jane’s Addiction’s brand of delirium and wonder. I was expecting a crapfest from tired old men hoping for a payday, and I got a vital, electric album from a band that probably doesn’t even realize how relevant they are. If Strays begins another alt-rock revolution and brings forth a fountain of wannabes who learn from its deep textures and joyous grooves, it won’t be a minute too soon.
Cash your checks, boys. You’ve earned them this time.
See you in line Tuesday morning.