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Pander's Box

Photo by Alexei Hay

Sometimes the hype, you just can’t resist it. Jane’s Addiction are back, oh yeah, with their first studio album in 13 years, and while they’ve attempted resurrection numerous times before, this new one called Strays does feel like the band have crawled out fully rested from under their collective rock, yawned, stretched and seen their path clearly for the very first time.

Or something. Maybe it’s the general perception that no one’s making big, splashy, epic rock albums anymore, but the ultracharged tracks on Strays give you the feeling of musicians confidently reasserting their claim to what is rightfully theirs, in exactly the right time and place.

The current Jane’s — shaman-huckster Perry Farrell, glamorous guitar guy Dave Navarro, drumming behemoth Stephen Perkins and new-dude bassist Chris Chaney — can rightfully claim to have idiosyncratically recombined if not invented just about every cliché in the alternative rock book, from the punk/metal hybrid to ambiguous sexuality to that teasingly vague vibing off the morally good and evil, right down to the lifestyle travesties of drug addiction and promoting the spurious connection between rock and porn. So when they indulge in a lot of that on Strays, pretty much just as they did on their 1988 Nothing’s Shocking and on 1990’s Ritual de lo Habitual, there’s at least a feeling of legitimacy about it.

Jane’s has always timed things right. Mid-’80s L.A., the band’s birthing point, was a scene of lingering correct-punk politics on the one hand and extremely dumb hair metal on the other, and Jane’s contorted conflation of the two made for a proposition that screamed in the face of what was then considered credible, and one that found immediate favor; there’d been a hunger for the power and slickness of the old-style hard-rock/metal bands, though nobody really wanted to talk about it. Jane’s version added an irony/freshness that basically obliterated whatever else was going on hereabouts.

It’s the irony hard-wired into Jane’s Addiction — though I may be projecting somewhat here — that gives Strays such a buzz. Every track comes loaded with some kind of baggage, like these guys know the drill of using clichés to (downside) sell the product and (upside) create something new out of the audience’s and players’ familiarities. The opening track, “True Nature,” charges out like a statement of intent, built on a simply great, heavy-heavy riff behind the verses; Perry Farrell is wailing in his high-pitched way, and superdrummer Stephen Perkins is thrashing the snot outta his kit. But right about the moment when Dave Navarro launches into his first of many technically crappy ax-hero solos, you might wince and go, “Uh-oh.” You aren’t thinking “clever rock-referencing for effect”; no, you’re probably thinking, dang, I hope they don’t embarrass themselves — or you, because embarrassment results from being pandered to.

For Perry Farrell, though, pandering has always been a big part of the job; he typically comes off like a manipulator of our worst fears, most hopeless dreams and most shattering obsessions, like the guy with the crooked grin pulling the strings on a crumbling dummy. Strangely, that too is part of the new record’s lure. Because, as Farrell says on the title track, “I’m always finding trouble,” like that’s his specialty. He also specializes in perfectly summing up sonic equations, so that this track’s glossily colossal production values (the album was produced with the aid of ’70s glossy-colossal specialist Bob Ezrin) cause his apparent objections to/celebrations of the rock-loner-with-a-boner life to resonate with a sound that both supports and undercuts his deceptive message.

Farrell’s pulling our strings; one can imagine he even pulls Navarro’s — I don’t know Dave, but something tells me he’s less conscious of rock-guitar clichés than Perry. On “Strays,” Navarro blurts out another musically irrelevant guitar solo, pastiche-ing his way ’cross the gamut of guitar gods, all squawk and squeal, and it starts not to matter what the hell he plays, because this is a “rollin’ down the road, baby” song, and the guitar doesn’t have to say anything, just has to feel like the wind in your hair and bugs in your teeth. Navarro is an excellent riff-hammerer, though, and it’s his rhythm work plus a very interesting midpoint guitar segue to another verse on the strongest-hooked song, “Just Because,” that makes it the album’s best success. “Suffer Some,” a not-sympathetic look at junkies, actually benefits from Navarro’s unmusical intuitions, because he stumbles onto a most righteous descending riff whose odd chord voicings have the feel of true invention.

“You really should have known,” Farrell, 44, whines on “Just Because,” like a kid half his age who nevertheless feels qualified to preach. It’s cool, Steely Dan used to do that all the time; it’s a power-of-the-pulpit thing that rock stars earn for all their years of debauchery and oh lord did they pay the price, etc. Speaking of clichés, I did say Jane’s Addiction virtually invented all the contemporary alt-rock ones, but then I started noticing during “Wrong Girl” — which might be a pretty good rock tune or just a bunch of noise — that in fact it’s a Van Halen song, right down to Farrell’s probably deliberate tribute to David Lee Roth. (Check it out, let me know.) But then, Jane’s forte has always been their amalgamation of old stuff yanked askew, not their ability to write songs. Structurally just so-so, the group’s new material is not outstanding inspirationwise, which begins to be noticeable on “Everybody’s Friend”; with its acoustic strum, wispy orchestral touches and mellow ’70s slide guitar, it’s one example of how Ezrin-abetted embellishments — combined with the enormous willpower/charisma of the band’s delivery — carry the tunes on Strays.

 

It’s not worth worrying about whether Strays is one of your Major Rock Statements of All Time. What it has in tankerloads is a palpable energy — a desire, a passion, a forward motion — that begins with our nostalgic good wishes, slaps us with a genuinely startling ferocity and only takes us higher. The band’s ability to sustain something like that concerned me a bit when I saw them a few weeks ago at this KROQ-sponsored “secret” performance at the group’s Culver City rehearsal space (so secret that approximately half of Los Angeles was present). There was real excitement in the air, and I latched onto it easily. Wow, I said to myself, look at that neato stage gear; look at Stephen Perkins’ awesomely huge drum set. And wow, we haven’t seen Jane’s in a while, I know they’ve been working on this new record, and Perry Farrell has decided to relaunch Lollapalooza . . .

Then Jane’s hit the stage, and something resembling love generated from the crowd, picked the band up and carried them through an hour and a half of new material plus goodies from the vaults. And there was Perry Farrell, this incredibly weird figure, when I thought about it, to be front man for a heavy rock band — weird the way Serj Tankian is weird fronting a heavy group like System of a Down. It seems there’s been a mistake, he’s not sexy or macho or, I don’t know, not hubristic enough, and so awkward, too much in the head and not the body. Anyway, the band was flailing away on hit after potential hit, and the crowd was whoooing and Bic-flicking and puffing jays and I mean really getting off. And for two or so songs, me too – ’cause there’s just no beating that kind of rush when real live rock stars hit the stage and rip.

So then Jane’s Addiction was joined by a trio of scantily attired dancers, flashing a lot of crotch and titty, humping these big poles, and they were prancing and jiggling, bouncy bouncy bouncy, and the band was hashing away, seemingly indifferent to the sleaze — except for Farrell, who leered knowingly and at one point fake ate-out one of the dancers. What a cop-out, I thought — a real rock wildman would’ve really, y’know, done it. Then Farrell started throwing out these pseudo-patter things like “Summertime, and a young man’s cock gets hard!” and something else about how sex is good for you, it makes your cock hard, or whatever. And the dancers humped on.

Hmmm. That night, the shtick made me wonder what the hell Perry Farrell is all about, really. Is he just a huckster, and aren’t we all? Okay, then what can I learn from this guy? Is it just me, or does this particular master of ceremonies hint at something godawful sinister? Why is he preying on his flock’s weakness? Why is he laughing at me? Why do I feel like he’s looking right through me?

Lollapalooza comes to Verizon Amphitheater on Saturday, August 16.

JANE’S ADDICTION | Strays | (Capitol)


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