Nothing’s Shocking (Warner Bros’ 88) Rating: A-
Although their ideas are at times overblown and their lyrics pretentious, Jane’s Addiction’s musical chemistry was never anything less than amazing. One of the most original and influential bands of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, their bold sound generally featured an arty and innovative melding of funk and metal. The principal components of that sound were Dave Navarro’s unique guitar histrionics, Stephen Perkins’ powerful tribal drum pounding, Dave Avery’s throbbing bass playing, and Perry Farrell’s ridiculously high pitched voice (which makes Jane’s Addiction a love ‘em or hate ‘em proposition to many people). The band’s second album but first studio/major label album (their lesser self-titled debut was a live album released by Triple X records), Nothing’s Shocking is a consistently fascinating if not entirely consistent alternative rock record at a time when such a label actually meant something. The band’s spectacular sound is immediately showcased on “Up The Beach,” a suitably dreamy and epic entrance into the world of Jane’s Addiction, while the aptly titled “Ocean Size” starts acoustically before exploding. “Had A Dad” is more straightforward and metallic, but it’s also catchy as hell, and it has some great guitar and memorably autobiographical lyrics from Farrell. “Ted, Just Admit It…” is surely a song that will polarize listeners, but though Farrell’s vocals and lyrics (about serial killer Ted Bundy) are at times grating, this powerful song is more than salvaged by the band’s superior musicianship. Next, “Standing In The Shower Thinking” is a breezy funkfest, while “Summertime Rolls” begins quietly before evolving into a droney, atmospheric epic that gets better and better the more you get to know it. Even better is the towering “Mountain Song,” easily one of the band’s very best heavy rockers, while “Idiots Rule” is a minor, atypical horn-driven effort that offers more funky fun. Which brings us to “Jane Says,” one of the band’s signature songs whose catchy pop melody and lyrics (about the sad plight of a junkie prostitute) gets to me every time. Had the album ended there it would’ve been fine by me, for “Thank You Boys” is just a jazzy little minute long interlude, and I’ve never been a big fan of the hard rocking but obnoxious “Pigs In Zen,” which, as a compact disc only add on, can really be considered a bonus track, anyway (not that anyone listens to records or tapes anymore). This was the first album to gain the band some notoriety, in no small part due to the explicit album cover designed by the multi-talented Farrell himself (which featured Siamese twins with their hair on fire), but the best was yet to come.
Ritual de lo Habitual (Warner Bros. ’90) Rating: A
The second major label long player from this mercurial quartet was a highly contentious affair, again due in large part to the album’s flamboyant cover art (whose nudity was later replaced by a plain white cover stating the first amendment) and songs advocating stealing and describing a ménage à trois. Ritual de lo Habitual can almost be divided into two totally different EPs. The fantastic first side, which includes two of the band’s best known songs in “Stop” and “Been Caught Stealing,” showcases a hard hitting, melodic, and concise rhythmic juggernaut. "Stop" is an explosive opening number that's most notable for a phenomenal drumming performance from Perkins and a cute a capella section. "Been Caught Stealing" is the one with the dogs barking at the beginning of it (my old dog Shakespeare used to go crazy whenever I'd play it!), and it's a terrific, totally fun rocker, simple as that. The rest of the first side also impresses, as "No One's Leaving" and "Ain't No Right" are a pair of funky, fast paced rockers with guitar histrionics galore, and "Obvious" is utterly anthemic, with an outstanding Farrell vocal. Far different is side two, which sees the band stretching out quite a bit on some highly ambitious (and pretentious) songs that unfold slowly. Featuring a Led Zeppelin-derived mystical bent, this atmospheric, often psychedelic second side is somewhat unfocused but is never less than interesting, and it has some transcendent peaks along the way. In particular, the near 11-minute “Three Days” is simply the band's greatest epic, their "Stairway To Heaven" or "Paranoid Android," so to speak. The song builds atmospherically before settling into a bass-led groove, ultimately climaxing with some spectacular guitar soloing from Navarro. "Then She Did" has a melodic, laid-back, trippy groove that's easy on the ears, plus it has several memorable surges, while "Of Course," though the album's least impressive number, is still notable for its snake charmer violin. Both of these songs feature extra instrumentation, are rather formless, and overstay their welcome (they clock in at 8:18 and 7:02, respectively), but both certainly have their moments as well, especially the former track which I like a lot. Anyway, the comparatively modest “Classic Girl” (a "mere" 5:07), an understated yet epic ballad, then provides a perfect close to a classic album that I've grown to appreciate more and more over the years. Unfortunately, the band’s shocking breakup soon after this album’s release (when they were poised to become big after headlining Farrell’s first Lollapalooza festival) ensured that Jane’s Addiction wouldn't get to further build upon this outstanding release. Then again, there's something to be said for breaking up prematurely rather than sticking around too long (The Rolling Stones and Metallica, anybody?). Either way, the band’s premature breakup gave Jane’s Addiction a mythical stature that was based as much on what might have been as on their impressive but limited achievements together, perhaps given further impetus by Farrell’s subsequent underachievement (with Porno For Pyros and as a solo artist) and his status as the outspoken overseer of the alternative nation.
Kettle Whistle (Warner Bros. ’97) Rating: B-
I can't remember why, but for some reason I always thought that this was a live album from their 1997 "relapse" tour, plus some new songs. Man was I dead wrong, because the live tracks are mostly old, and only 7 of the 15 songs are live, anyway, the rest being decent but unnecessary demos and outtakes, most of which serve to accentuate how well-recorded (take a bow, producer Dave Jerden) the original studio versions were. As for the new songs, "Kettle Whistle" is an ambitious but fairly boring attempt at an epic; much better is "Slow Divers," a wonderfully moody keeper, and "City," a cute little acoustic ditty. Still, though there are only a couple of bad songs here (an updated "My Cat's Name Is Maceo" and a failed new track, "So What!"), few of these rougher remakes will be of significant interest to anyone other than the band's biggest fans. Fortunately, Jane's Addiction were a great live band, and the tracks "Live At The Hollywood Palladium 1990" in particular prove this; the version of "Jane's Says" absolutely sparkles with a flamenco flavor (in fact this has become the definitive version of the song), and "Whores" is another hard rocking highlight. Still, I can't get past the feeling that this haphazardly strewn together collection was but a way for the band to cash in on their "relapse" tour. It could have been an excellent EP, though. Note: Farrell's bit about "would you try to steal your good friend's girl?" was a none-to-subtle dig at Avery, who allegedly tried to do just that to him.
Strays (Warner Bros. ’03) Rating: B+
Jane's Addiction always struck me as a band who had unfinished business, breaking up as they were on the verge of stardom (a case could be made that they first knocked on the mainstream door that Nirvana later blew down) and then scattering off to a myriad of unremarkable projects. A brief reunion tour and a slapped together album (Kettle Whistle, both in 1997) aside, Strays marks the full-scale return of Jane's Addiction after over ten long years. And a fine return it is, even though the album isn't up to the level of Nothing's Shocking or Ritual de lo Habitual. Still, this album consistently rocks (for all their "alternative rock" credentials, this is basically an arena rock album), so much so it's as if the band never left. There are differences, of course; for one, Chris Chaney has (quite adequately) replaced Eric Avery on bass guitar duties, and they've also streamlined some of the meandering excesses that sometimes marred their previous albums. The band's strengths remain the same, though, in that they're capable of producing a hard rocking, ocean sized sound that's also extremely moody and melodic, a winning combination that only the special bands seem to have. Perry Farrell is in fine form throughout, singing with a renewed passion (plus, producer Bob Ezrin has elevated his voice very high up in the mix), Stephen Perkins shows why he remains one of the world's most renowned rock drummers, and Dave Navarro in particular impresses. His all-over-the-place playing may not be groundbreaking, but he has all the right moves and he knows how and when to use each and every one of them. The first six songs are especially strong, highlighted by the exciting first single, "Just Because," a serious contender for the band's best song ever, and "Superhero," the hard rocking, riff driven theme song to the popular HBO series Entourage. Also impressive are "True Nature," "Strays" (the best of the rest), "Price I Pay," and "The Riches," all of which contain mellow atmospheric sections with a psychedelic tint, as well as buildups that lead to explosive payoffs. The second half of the album skimps on the songwriting somewhat, though, which isn't too surprising for an album that was basically bashed out in the studio. Still, even when the compositions are average - on "Wrong Girl" and "Suffer Some" the band basically hit on a funky groove and then simply ad lib off of that, and "To Match The Sun" is a fairly pedestrian finale - the band plays the hell out of them, and "Everybody's Friend," a weary, resigned ballad, and "Hypersonic," which briskly surges forward with a suped up intensity, offer additional high points. Really, this welcome reunion album is an impressive achievement given their long layoff, and most of these songs should play well to the large crowds that the band will no doubt be playing to as they headline the first Lollapalooza festival since 1997.