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Shooting Blanks

Velvet Revolver
Contraband (RCA)

Remember the days when rock & roll used to actually rock? Here we are, celebrating rock’s 50th anniversary—apparently observed on July 5th, the date that Elvis recorded “That’s All Right” back in ’54—and, much like the King himself probably would have been had he reached the milestone himself, today’s rock & roll music is looking and sounding bloated and impotent. Man, rock & roll may be in need of a tummy tuck and a quadruple bypass.

So many of the last generation’s rock stars—a term used only to describe them as they might describe themselves, and meant in both the musical and behavioral senses—are scrambling to secure their 401k plans, it seems as if they’re conspiring to burst from the old-rockers home and take over. And they’d be right to assume that their mere existence on the musical radar is worthy of restoring their superstar status. There just aren’t any real rock stars these days. Scott Stapp? Um, no. Fred Durst? Please. At least Jack White can throw a punch, but he was instantly banned from the club for dating Renée Zellweger. So you can’t really blame the old guys for trying to inject a little life into rock’s old, collapsed veins like so much Mexican black tar.

Imagine the rock world’s version of The Real World (or, more appropriately, The Surreal Life). Take one estranged-and- palpably-frustrated backup band; add one charismatic (and often socially troubled) lead singer—preferably one who hasn’t had a hit in a while; stir in a liberal dose of media hype; and, voila! Instant million- seller. Just ask Audioslave, which combined ex-Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell with the three instrumentalists from Rage Against the Machine to form a band who sound like, well, Rage Against the Machine playing Soundgarden tunes. Exactly the sum of its parts—no more, no less.

It looks like others are starting to catch on to the formula. Former Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson has reportedly signed on to record with the three remaining members of Stone Temple Pilots (for a project that E! Online has playfully dubbed Black Temple Roses.) A similar framework was used for the recent DKT/MC5 tour, which coupled the three surviving members of the legendary Detroit rabblerousers with vocalists like Evan Dando, Mark Arm (Mudhoney), and Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist (the Hives). The difference? They made the wise choice to stick to the good shit and just play MC5 tunes.

What makes Velvet Revolver different from any of the other so-called “supergroups”? Beside their pedigree, not much. The band began when “surviving” Guns N’ Roses members Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum teamed up with guitarist Dave Kushner and held an open casting call of sorts to locate a new singer, a process that was documented by VH1 for an upcoming special. The band actually started as a reality show! Sorry, but there’s nothing rock & roll about that. They eventually found their man in former Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland, a guy who’s racked up a Courtney Love-caliber arrest record for his drug abuse and domestic violence. The five members’ collective firepower virtually guaranteed a number-one Billboard debut, but it remained to be seen whether the music would skew nostalgic or blaze a new trail.

The newly minted band have been tooting their own admittedly well- credentialed horns in the press, touting themselves as “dangerous.” Surely, most bands try to come out swingin’ on their first record (except Coldplay, who just sort of nodded their heads), and these guys have every reason to talk this thing up like it’s Houses of the Holy (or Appetite for Destruction, for that matter), but for them to suggest that the music on their debut album, Contraband, is edgy in the same way as either of their seed bands were is almost blasphemous. And that’s saying a lot for STP, who themselves were pretty damn derivative.

From the first notes of “Sucker Train Blues,” one thing is apparent: Velvet Revolver are out to prove something. What exactly that is doesn’t come completely clear for most of the album—maybe they just want to show that they can still stand up (physically) on their own volition—but it’s fairly clear that they aren’t comfortable with just playing the hits of the early ’90s, and that’s too bad because, unfortunately, there isn’t exactly a wealth of new hits here. Duff’s bass tone conjures the sonic memory of “It’s So Easy,” but once the band kicks in and Weiland starts muttering distorted gibberish (à la GNR’s “Civil War”), it ends up sounding like karaoke night at the local dive bar. In fact, there are a lot of moments on Contraband where it sounds as if Weiland is merely trying to play the Axl role (before he went completely mental, of course).

Truth be told, Velvet Revolver are, at their core, best when pushing the click track on straightforward tunes like “Do It for the Kids” or chugging along on that “Train Kept a-Rollin’” groove that made “Welcome to the Jungle” such a kick in the ass back in the diz-zay. Certain types of grooves have never suited this rhythm section (remember GNR’s “Yesterdays”? They never locked into that one), so straightforward four-on-the-floor rockers like “Spectacle” and “Dirty Little Thing” work just fine, while “Illegal i Song” and “Big Machine” turn out as stiff and lifeless as last year’s Jane’s Addiction reunion record. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of decent material—the “Sex Type Thing” riff on “Slither,” is a hoot, and “Do It for the Kids” is encouragingly Use Your Illusion-esque—but Weiland weighs things down with clichéd and just-plain-dumb lyrics like “I’m a superman, I wanna be your superman.” Ugh.

Weiland’s trials (some legal) and tribulations tend to dominate the lyric sheet. Between a highly visible and ongoing battle with drug addiction, and last year’s divorce from his wife of nearly three years, he had what he has called a “pretty rough year,” but for him to come out of those experiences with lyrics like “I’m a man who is trudging . . . through a minefield” seems less like self-assessment than it does “woe is me” posturing. That’s not to say he didn’t earn the right to bitch and moan, but it’s hardly personal or eloquent, no more so than what you might find in the margins of your average high-school student’s biology notebook.

Then there are the obligatory power ballads. While “Fall to Pieces” is a calculated designated hitter for the next single, it’s a boring, soulless dry spell between better tracks. Contraband is one of the most sure-fire blockbusters to be issued by a major this year, so why did it need this song? Maybe it’s wrong to expect a band to rock hard all the time, but after the full-on assault of the album’s first five tracks, it’s jarring to hear these guys puss out so thoroughly. It’s not like they couldn’t pull off something more downtempo with a little bit of style—for that, check out “You Got No Right,” on which Weiland’s vunerable-sounding voice is sharper than it has been in nearly a decade, even if the track itself sounds like a Red Bull-fueled version of Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.” Of course, the subject matter is characteristically superficial, but it certainly outweighs the former’s I’m-so-lonely-I-could-sing-“Don’t Cry” sentiment.

Ultimately, this whole thing works out much like the Audioslave project did: When it clicks, it’s bombastic rock-radio fare, even if not terribly interesting; when it doesn’t, it sounds like the hollow, lifeless shell of the rock that used to be, like the fat Elvis trying to snake his cheeseburger-stuffed ass into that old gold lamé suit for one more lame-ass go-round. That may sound unfairly harsh, but if these guys are trying to be “dangerous,” it’s gonna take a lot more than letting out the waist on the old leather pants and doling out a bunch of f-bombs to get there. Maybe if they really want to kick up some dirt, they should consider giving Axl a call right about now. Sure, it would stink (as anyone who caught the last GNR tour would attest), but at least it would be fun to watch.

An interesting postscript: Scott Weiland was ordered back into a drug-rehab program by a judge in L.A. last Friday after pleading guilty to driving under the influence and smashing into a parked car last October. Now that could be a fun topic for a reality show, a la Ronnie Dobbs. Run Scotty Run!

—John Brodeur

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