2003 / Music

Review: Jane’s Addiction Creates New Music Minus Danger

L.A. Rockers Reactivate Lollapalooza Tour

The last time Jane’s Addiction made a bid for success, it culminated in the end of the band at the very height of their popularity. After delivering two classic records in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Los Angeles alternative rock band earned the kind of critical and commercial attention heaped only on living legends. They were often described as the “Led Zeppelin of alternative rock.”

Photo: Capitol Records

Photo: Capitol Records

But as quickly as success entered the picture, the band defied the marketplace’s and their fans’ expectations and called it quits. It was a decision that the band members haven’t left alone.

Two greatest-hits-filled reunion tours later, the band has recorded their first new album since 1990 — “Strays” — and it’s a hard rock radio programmers’ dream come true. Coinciding with the new record is the rebirth of the Lollapalooza tour, which was started by Jane’s frontman Perry Farrell and has been hibernating since 1998. The multi-band, multi-activity package tour currently making its way across the country.

All of this shouldn’t be treated as mere coincidence. Here is a carefully planned attempt to re-win the worldwide fame that Jane’s Addiction squandered when they splintered. While the group should have been relishing their achievements and focusing on creating music, they factionalized because of clashes over songwriting, egos and drugs.

Since then, much has changed for the band members. Breaking up right after the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991, the group missed out as the alternative rock wave they were riding finally crested. The alt-rock movement swept across the country and for a time in the early-to-mid-’90s, loud guitar rock returned to a preeminent position in the public’s and media’s consciousness. Unfortunately, Nirvana and its Seattle brethren were credited for this change in fortune and musical kindred spirits like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Smashing Pumpkins became familiar faces on MTV and in the nation’s arenas.

Meanwhile, the aftermath of the Jane’s experience has seen some dodgy creative output from the band members. Farrell and drummer Stephen Perkins quickly formed Porno for Pyros, a garage-rock quartet, that recorded two lukewarm records and had a lone hit with “Pets,” but could never escape from Jane’s long shadow. (In fact, Jane’s songs were routinely included in the group’s live repertoire.)

Fate wasn’t much kinder for guitarist Dave Navarro. After recording a brilliant but rambling experimental rock album with Jane’s bassist Eric Avery under the moniker of Deconstruction, Navarro joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers just in time to co-create that group’s least commercially successful album in years.

Perhaps the only clear-cut success of this period was the ongoing Lollapalooza tour, which Farrell alone continued to participate in the organization of. But after several years of assembling a series of package tours whose money-making abilities often varied, Farrell reportedly walked away from active involvement in 1996 when the other planners inked Metallica to headline and thus secure a sure-fire big payday.

But as so often happens in pop music when a star’s fame has been tarnished and their future seems uncertain, you go back to what you know. In 1997, Farrell, Perkins and Navarro made peace and began plotting a reunion. An ongoing feud between Farrell and Avery, the group’s other founder, kept the bassist from participating in what would become the “Relapse” tour. Drafting Navarro’s Chili Pepper pal Flea on bass, the band tracked a pair of electronica-laced songs for a new rarities album, “Kettle Whistle,” and toured the United States to much media attention.

The main casualty of the reunion, however, was the death of Lollapalooza in 1998. According to rumors, the tour ceased operations that year after Jane’s decided not to headline it late in the planning stages, giving organizers little time to find a suitable replacement.

Regardless, the reunion was so successful in re-igniting interest in the band that four very quiet years later, when Farrell and Navarro finally completed work on their own solo albums, they decided to reactivate Jane’s yet again for another reunion tour. This time, Flea’s Chili Peppers commitments kept him from joining in and the band tapped former Porno for Pyros’ bassist Martyn LeNoble to fill in. (Read the Soundbytes review of a 2001 reunion concert)

After that tour’s completion, the writing was on the wall. If the band was to ever tour again and elude the state fairs currently being worked by former classic rock icons and ’80s pop stars, they would need new material.

Already faced with the challenge of besting two heavy-rock masterworks, “Nothing’s Shocking” and “Ritual de lo Habitual,” the prospect of writing and recording together again would seem even more daunting by the fact that a majority of Jane’s songs were originally written soon after their formation in 1985 and certainly prior to the release of “Nothing’s Shocking” in 1988. (Even the two “Kettle Whistle” songs were based on ideas developed from their early days.) Still another complication for the band was the absence of Avery’s input, whose punching, no-frills basslines were the foundation for all their songs.

While “Strays” contains several obvious reference points to the old Jane’s sound — Farrell’s echo-laden vocals, Navarro’s rock riffs and unhinged, manic soloing — these songs’ strict adherence to pop song structures and the inclusion of highly polished hooks are more akin to the band members’ solo outings, especially Navarro’s. It’s hard to see where the band can really stretch out and jam with this material in their concerts. A prime example of this complete change in approach is the role of Stephen Perkins — one of rock’s more flexible drummers who took any opportunity to embellish Jane’s songs with wild tribal drumming — is now penned in and yoked with just keeping time.

No doubt playing a critical role in pushing the band in this direction was producer Bob Ezrin. While Ezrin has earned praise for helming important albums by artists like Lou Reed and Pink Floyd, he’s also manufactured fluffy pop from the likes of Kiss and Air Supply.

One can almost see Ezrin’s handiwork on tracks like “The Riches” “Everybody’s Friend” or “Superhero.” Ezrin pulls out the cliched strings in an attempt to enhance the acoustic-based “Everybody’s Friend,” which is resembles Navarro’s and the Chili Peppers’ “My Friends.” Ultimately, the song fulfills the album’s quota of having a slow number but lacks strong substance.

The collaboration is frequently a winner. For “The Riches,” Ezrin double tracks Farrell’s vocals to enhance the sense of exhilaration when he shouts, struck by a realization, about the overwhelming beauty of the world. On “Superhero,” Ezrin wisely keeps Navarro’s fuzzed-out guitar low in the mix to make way for Farrell’s vocal strutting. The tension between the two is temporary released as they work off each other for the sing-along chorus. Signaling a change in direction is coming, Ezrin inserts some classical piano phrases during the bridge. By the tune’s end, Navarro is finally fully unchained and lets loose with a dizzying flow of notes.

Throughout the songs, Navarro’s playing shows the greatest signs of growth and is the most adaptable feature of the music. He leads the group, switching between punishing chords, shrill rhythm fills or melodic lines. Several songs on the album, particularly “True Nature” and “Just Because,” explode with jarringly massive guitar riffs. These are the kind of songs that in a live setting, you can easily imagine pyrotechnics exploding.

And although they’re pleasing to hear, the songs are remarkably contemporary sounding. They could’ve come any of the current crop of hard rock acts, like Staind or P.O.D or Puddle of Mudd. No longer blazing a trail, this music places Jane’s Addiction as leader of the pack.

The band’s new sound also benefits from having some expert help on the low end. LeNoble was swiftly dispatched early in the sessions for the new album to be replaced by hired gun Chris Chaney, who has worked with Alanis Morissette, Andrew W.K., Tommy Lee and Rob Zombie. Less distinctive sounding than Avery, Chaney ably fits the bill here and underpins Navarro’s far-reaching guitar explorations.

In fact, the only song that is blatantly reminiscent of the old band is “Suffer Some,” which dates back to original lineup. Developed during the late ’80s, it was played live in various forms on several occasions but never recorded. For “Strays,” the group has fleshed out the song’s potential and reenergized it. Built around a zig-zag guitar lick, Navarro’s guitar playing is more muscular than before and it effortlessly slides beneath Farrell’s yelps, bolstering it. The song’s verses about a poor little rich girl who’s dabbling with trouble also serves to reveal how these new songs differ from those of the past.

Absent from the “Strays” songs is much of Farrell’s street poetry — stories of desperate, addled people wrestling with love, sex, race, spirituality and drugs — which he perfected in Jane’s and continued to draw on early in Porno for Pyros. But sometime during Porno’s second record and most nauseatingly on Farrell’s solo record, all that was replaced with such ho-hum themes as universal love and vague religious fervor. The lyrics on “Strays,” which make plain-spoken observations on enormous topics like love or society in general, are tame and lack interesting insights.

Essentially, “Strays” lacks a sense of danger, lyrically or musically. A large part of what made Jane’s Addiction’s music so thrilling — apart from penning some great killer riffs and intriguing lyrical narratives — was its epic size and unpredictability. What would Farrell sing/say next? What other band could score a hit with a scat-ditty like “Been Caught Stealing”? Wasn’t this the group that released its 11-minute opus “Three Days” as a single? In the tradition of their glam and goth predecessors, they stuck their neck out — whether it meant success or failure — for all to see.

“Strays” has no aspirations to walk the high-wire of artistic achievements. This is a product, an album full of potential singles, and the band is either lacking the will to take chances or has simply forgotten how.

Just as “Strays” is well-designed to appeal to the widest possible young male demographic, this year’s re-launch of Lollapalooza, which Farrell is again leading, is sticking with the tried and true. While the formula for creating the package was always predictable (enlist a group of male-lead, hard rock-leaning bands and a single rap act), this year’s features Jane’s as headliner and safe and mainstream bands like Audioslave, Incubus, A Perfect Circle and Queens of the Stone Age. (Despite this, the tour hasn’t been drawing the number of fans expected and several shows have been cancelled.)

Despite the tepid response thus far to Lollapalooza, there’s still hope that “Strays” will insure we have not heard the last from a reunited Jane’s Addiction.

“We’re a brand-new band that has a huge history together,” Navarro said in a press release. It’s true. The old Jane’s Addiction is dead and this new incarnation has produced an album, no matter how contrived, that could bring Farrell and company back into people’s affections. And even though it’s no landmark achievement, “Strays” is surely the top contender for guilty pleasure of the year. It’s just disappointing to see the band that was once seen as an alternative to the musical status quo is now making music that aims to move units instead of creating art that moves you or makes you think.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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