Use Your Illusion I is the more schizophrenic and rocking of the two albums, consisting mostly of shorter songs and a couple of epics. Alas, far too many of these songs (particularly towards the end) are fast paced chuggers that thrash about with loads of energy but far too few hooks, making the album (easily the weaker of the two) a bit monotonous and boring over the long haul. That said, there are some significant highlights, such as Izzy Stradlin taking a lead vocal on "Dust n' Bones," a gritty, bluesy rocker (on which Axl's vocal contributions are important as well), and "Don't Cry," a moody power ballad (with Blind Melon's ill-fated Shannon Hoon on backing vocals) that gave that much-maligned genre a good name, however briefly. Of course, the power ballad here is "November Rain," a nearly nine-minute extravaganza on which Axl indulges his Elton John fixation. Like "Don't Cry," "November Rain" is indelibly linked to its popular video, which memorably climaxed with Slash wailing away on top of a piano (as opposed to Slash driving his car off a cliff like on “Don’t Cry”) for the song's epic ending. As usual, Slash's consistently excellent guitar playing highlights both I and II, the former of which culminates with another ambitious epic in "Coma," a surprisingly progressive track whose ten minutes come and go all too quickly, ending the first album on a high
Before that, however, the rest of the album is comprised of several good but inessential songs and several songs that are simply forgettable. On the positive side of the ledger, "You 'Aint The First" (also sung by Stradlin) is a singable acoustic ditty, yet what's most interesting about the song is how at odds its mean-spirited lyrics are with its loose, down home melody. "Bad Obsession" is overly repetitive but gets by on its good Stonesy groove (the Gunners debt to that band is apparent throughout both albums), while "Back Off Bitch" is a musically stellar song that's seriously compromised by its obnoxious lyrics. "Double Talking Jive," yet another Izzy sung number, is an enjoyably hard-charging rocker that ends with an improbable but lovely classical guitar solo on the outro, while "The Garden" was a catchy minor hit featuring a cameo from Alice Cooper, the band thereby acknowledging another seminal influence. As for the rest, well, I can't remember "Perfect Crime" from "Don't Damn Me" from "Bad Apples," while their remake of Paul McCartney’s “Live And Let Die” was popular but pretty pointless given its inferiority to the classic original.
Really, aside from its few significant highlights I'd say that I is often skippable, which isn't the case with II, a less patchy affair that loads up on the epics, with four songs (each excellent) eclipsing the 7-minute mark. Beginning the proceedings with an excerpt from the movie Cool Hand Luke, "Civil War" is an atmospheric yet highly charged political rocker that's highlighted by lyrics that actually seem thoughtful and Axl's scream for the ages at around the 5-minute mark. Interestingly, this song was actually recorded earlier for a benefit compilation with previous drummer Steven Adler (sacked by the band due to his excessive drug habits, which must've been really excessive), who was replaced on the rest of these songs by ex-Cult drummer Matt Sorum, a technically superior player even if I personally prefer Adler's more rudimentary swing. Izzy then checks in with another strong Stones influenced mid-tempo greaser, "14 Years," before "Yesterdays" delivers a wistful pop song with a superbly singable melody (Axl sounds great here).
After such a fine first three songs, trouble first rears its head with their cover of Bob Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door;" though not bad by any means (Axl certainly puts his vocal stamp on it and Slash adds some melodic and tasteful solos), I feel that this slicked up version was a missed opportunity given the superior live versions I’ve heard. Axl again is his own worst enemy on "Get In The Ring," whose strong, hard rocking music is largely compromised by Axl's paranoid, infantile lyrics (I swear my IQ shrinks whenever I listen to it), which actually threaten rock critics by name! That silly bit of self-indulgence out of the way, "Shotgun Blues" continues with the kind of fast paced but forgettable song that probably should've been on I (though again Slash smokes) while "Breakdown" is a very underrated track. Part ballad/part rocker, the song builds impressively, making it thoroughly enjoyable despite its somewhat hokey chorus. After another solidly catchy if inessential song, "Pretty Tied Up," comes another ambitious track, "Locomotion." Highlighted by its chugging riffs and Axl's filtered vocals, this action packed song changes gears entirely for its last 2-minutes, ending with a moody jam section. Again, after a decent ballad, "So Fine," on which Duff gets to indulge himself (the band indulges themselves quite a lot throughout these albums, actually) with a rare lead vocal (memories of Peter Criss), comes another outstanding effort, arguably the album's best. "Estranged" is a multi-sectioned "power ballad" that has it all, including a seemingly sincere Axl singing in an especially affecting manner (his "when you took everything, said you took everything from me" line really gets to me for some reason) and a soaring guitar solo from Slash. Last but certainly not least, "You Could Be Mine," the albums first single and the theme song to the second Terminator movie, is a relentless rocker with loads of attitude that would've fit in fine on Appetite.
That's where the album should've ended, anyway, as an unnecessary reprise of "Don't Cry" and a laughably bad stab at rap ("My World") follow. The latter is mercifully brief, at least, but both are further examples of padding on an album that was too long to begin with. Truth is, if properly edited these two albums could’ve made one fantastic record, but considering the lofty expectations and the excessive amount of filler they simply have to be viewed as disappointments when taken together as a whole. Of course, they are available separately, and II is very good, even though I has more of the stripped down sound and metallic edge that made Appetite so appealing, albeit without the consistently memorable songs.
On a personal note, whereas Appetite always puts a smile on my face and makes me think of good times, these albums make me remember a much darker period in my life. 1991 was a year of horribly bad luck for me; starting up at college where I had not one but TWO houses burn down within three days of each other (it's a long story and neither was my fault, believe it or not), things didn't get much better from there. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer (she survived, thank God), I was broke and unable to find a job upon graduating college due to the terrible economy, I contracted such a serious case of food poisoning that I was hospitalized for a few days, I broke my left ankle playing basketball for the third time, and my girlfriend who I thought would love me "'till death do us part" dropped me like a bad habit. These albums were in heavy rotation throughout the latter part of that hard luck year, and as a result I rarely listen to them due to the bad memories that are attached to them (besides, I much prefer Appetite, anyway). Music doesn't exist in a vacuum, after all, and our perceptions of albums are colored by our own experiences. However, that's a story for a different day, and I apologize for traveling so far off the beaten path. Then again, I suppose it makes perfect sense that this review should be such a sprawling mess, because these albums are sprawling messes as well! P.S. If I were to whittle these two albums down to a single cd, I suppose that these would be the songs that I'd include: "Dust N' Bones,"
"Don't Cry (Original Version)," "You Ain't The First," "November Rain," "Coma," "Civil War," "14 Years," "Yesterdays," "Breakdown," "Locomotive," "Estranged," and "You Could Be Mine." At least that’s my track listing today, with the acknowledgement that it’s quite heavy on the epics. I also considered "Bad Obsession," "Back Off Bitch," "Double Talkin’ Jive," "The Garden," "Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door," and "Pretty Tied Up."
"The Spaghetti Incident?" (Geffen ’93) Rating: C+
Well, so much for these guys becoming all-time greats...They really did have it all once upon a time, but after the Illusions albums were released, a deadly combination of overblown egos (most notably Axl's), internal strife (and the attendant membership turnover), chemical ingestion, and flat-out dicking around prematurely relegated these former rock n’ roll bad boys to has been status. "The Spaghetti Incident?", an all covers album on which Guns n' Roses paid tribute to punk/garage bands (yawn), was basically the end of the original band, perhaps the final death knell being the inclusion (at Axl's insistence) of a Charles Manson song, a truly pathetic attempt for attention that made "One In A Million" seem tasteful by comparison. In truth, the overall album isn't as terrible as many people have made it out to be, it's just not especially inspired and pretty pointless. Fittingly, the record, which was originally intended as a stopgap EP and probably should've remained that way, was poorly received by both fans and critics. I guess that some people discovered some pretty good bands as a result of this album, which perhaps justifies its existence, but it's hard for me to name more than a few highlights. For example, their cover of The Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You," while inferior to the original (as are most of these songs, the ones where I'm familiar with the originals, anyway), doesn't fit in with the rest of the album at all and is therefore interesting as an oddball choice for inclusion. I'm also partial to their version of the New York Dolls' "Human Being," mostly because they let Slash let 'er rip more than elsewhere (guitar solos being "uncool" in punk rock and all), and their versions of The Dead Boys' "Ain't It Fun" and Nazareth's "Hair Of The Dog" are legitimately great reminders of what a powerful band this could be when they're all on the same page. Unfortunately, their takes on The Damned ("New Rose"), The Stooges ("Raw Power"), T. Rex and Soundgarden (a medley of "Buick MacKane" and "Big Dumb Sex" that would've worked better as separate songs), The Misfits ("Attitude"), and a few others are generally either uninspired or unnecessary, though I get an odd kick out of Axl's faux Cockney accent on the U.K. Subs' "Down On The Farm" and Duff's lead vocal on Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arm Around A Memory." Band Update (written in mid-2004): Izzy Stradlin, who left the band after the Illusion albums, went solo while his replacement, Gilby Clarke, recorded this album and a solo venture before being booted from the band. In between releasing two cheese metal albums as Slash’s Snakepit, Slash also got fed up with Axl and left Guns n’ Roses. As for Axl, who got the naming rights to the band when he threatened to take his pacifier and go home otherwise, he shamelessly toured with a whole new band of Gunners, of which he was the only original band member. However, though he looked considerably different (what with his braided hair and big football uniform T-shirts to hide his gut), his signature spastic dance movements remained the same, and his behavior remained as erratic as ever. Unsurprisingly, that version of the band (featuring an odd cast of characters such as Tommy Stinson of The Replacements, Robin Finck of Nine Inch Nails, and avant garde guitarist Buckethead) has also seen many members come and go over the years, making me wonder if the endlessly delayed "Guns n' Roses" (snicker snicker) album, Chinese Democracy, will ever be released (in the meantime, stay away from any pointless Greatest Hits packages, please). However, another band that should soon deliver an album is Velvet Revolver, which features Slash, Duff, and Sorum along with Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland. Granted, Weiland is a strange choice for a lead singer given that he's almost as unstable as Rose and now the band will be endlessly compared with two bands rather than one had the three Gunners picked a less known singer. Still, the song I heard ("Sliver") was encouraging, though it'll be hard to hear this band and not think about all the missed opportunities and unfulfilled expectations of both parent bands.
Chinese Democracy (Geffen ’08) Rating: B+
Wow, here it is...finally. For years my friend Daniel has been sending me updates about the alleged progress of this album, which I've always dismissed by saying "it doesn't matter, it's never going to actually be released anyway." And I don't know what's more shocking, the fact that I'm actually holding the album in my hands right now or the fact that it's actually good. Was it worth the 15 year wait and endless dramas (which I have no desire to detail here; read the slew of GnR books that have come out in the wake of this album's release instead), and can it possibly live up to unrealistic expectations? The answers are no and no, but though it's not Appetite For Destruction, it couldn't be. This is a totally different band, after all, a different enough band that I can see why Slash and Axl had to part ways, though the way it all happened was regrettable. I still wish that Axl hadn't continued to use the Guns n' Roses moniker, and it doesn't seem to have mattered much to a general public who greeted this album with a collective yawn (let's face it, the young kids today barely know of Guns n' Roses, and it serves Geffen right for enabling Axl all these years). But I pride myself in being able to judge albums without letting my personal feelings about an artist taint my opinion too much, so I'm going to try to write a legitimate, unbiased review of this album by the new version of Guns n' Roses (and these songs are all co-writes, so Axl is at least trying to give the impression of this being a real working band rather than just a bunch of hired hands). Right off the bat, one positive and negative is that Chinese Democracy is really long, too much to digest almost, but after making everybody wait so long Axl almost had to deliver a full cd worth of material, and there's a lot of quality music here and not really much in the way of obvious filler to complain about (there's certainly no "My World" type embarrassments). Axl's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to nearly every song, with layers of orchestration, piano, multi-tracked vocals (lead and backing), and the like, also takes some getting used to, and though there are times when I yearn for the stripped down sound of Appetite (keeping in mind that I often wished the same for the Illusion albums), the album's many different layers and styles (some industrial touches here, Elton John-like balladry there, balls out rock there, each sometimes within the same song!) also makes it interesting over the repeat listens that are absolutely required for a full appreciation of it. Another definite positive about this album is the guitar work; there's a notable guitar solo on just about every song on the album, and the talented guitarists used throughout (most of the heavy lifting presumably being done by Buckethead, Finck, and more recent recruit Ron “Bumblefoot” Thai) makes the album's various sounds seem fresh, even if there are few out and out classic guitar solos like Slash likely would have delivered. On the down side, Axl's voice isn't what it once was and can get grating over the course of the album, but then again I suppose it always was an acquired taste, and there are some impressive performances on his part. As for the actual songs, the album starts with the title track, the albums first single and a darn good one, even if its pointless one minute intro was a curious decision given how long many of us had waited to hear it ("what's one minute more?" I guess Axl was thinking). Fortunately, when the main riff finally arrives it's a real corker, and the rest of the song kicks major ass as well. Really, when was the last time a guitar solo (by Buckethead I think, who tends to deliver the flashier, more futuristic leads and solos - but then again trying to figure out who played what on this album is part of the fun) this cool actually graced a modern rock radio track? "Shackler's Revenge" has a good groove and a catchy shout along chorus, before "Better" delivers soul elements along with some straightforward hard rock, with Finck (I think) delivering a more Slash-like solo this time out. Elton Rose makes his first appearance on "Street Of Dreams," a "power ballad" with an affecting Axl vocal (like I said, this album does have some fine vocal performances, even if I sometimes feel that his vocals, especially the high-pitched ones, are best served in bite-sized pieces). The same could be said about the orchestral "If The World," actually, a seemingly a straightforward love song. Then again, many of the lyrics on this album will likely be (mis?)interpreted as being about former bandmates or the making of this album, and again all I can say is that's part of the fun, trying to figure it all out. "There Was A Time" is an epic, and though the first half of it isn't all that memorable, the sing along climax along with an extended Buckethead solo (shades of "November Rain") more than makes up for it. "The Catcher In The Rye" seemed cheesy to me at first, but I've grown to like its wistful vibe and catchy "na na na" backing vocals, and though "Scraped" isn't even close to an album highlight, I've grown to at least appreciate it, mostly due to the backing vocals and the guitar solo, plus it's one of the faster paced tracks on an album that I sometimes wished rocked out with reckless abandon a bit more. Without giving the rundown on every song here (there are 14 of them), I'll mention that "Sorry," a dark, Pink Floyd-ish entry, "Madagascar," a BIG ballad that perhaps goes to the well once too often by using the same "Cool Hand Luke" sample yet again, and "Prostitute," another BIG, impressively epic ballad turned rocker that I see as Axl's attempt at defending the album's long gestation period, are additional notables, and that Axl's high-pitched scream leading into the guitar solo on "I.R.S" is one of those great moments that pops up here and there throughout the album. On the downside, Chinese Democracy is a jumbled mess, there's no denying that, and as such I feel that its lack of a unified vision makes it add up to less than the sum of its parts, even though I like most of the individual songs (as such, I think that this is a good record to listen to randomly; I don't think the song order really matters, and I often jump around between tracks when listening to it). It's also damn near impossible to justify the 15 year delay and inter-band (not to mention record company) casualties that resulted from making this album, but I'm glad that it's finally here, especially since it's much better than I expected it to be, even though it’s nowhere near what the original (real) Guns n’ Roses would’ve done.
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