ybrid albums are innately difficult to assess. First the listener has to get past the dissonance. You know, two (or more) distinct sounds doing what they do, only—and oddly—intertwined for the first time. Next you have to rate each of those sounds based on past performance. Finally, twenty listens or so later, the border between the competing components blurs, leaving one free to judge the hybrid as a whole.
And, as should be expected, Velvet Revolver, boasting former Guns N’ Roses members Slash, Duff and Matt Sorum, former STP front man Scott Weiland, and Dave Kushner (formerly of Dave Navarro’s band), hasn’t forged an identity of their own yet. Contraband, however, does offer evidence of some growth toward unity.
The elements live up to expectation. Slash peels off some of his trademark speed-guitar licks, Duff gets it done on bass (though his playing is far less punk now than circa Appetite For Destruction), Sorum keeps it together on drums, and Weiland delivers competent vocals (though he fails to match the resonance and range he achieved on Purple). Kushner, laying down the rhythm parts, is no Izzy Stradlin. Where Izzy used to balance Slash’s sporadic solos and heavy bridges with a textured, country-tinged backdrop, Kushner is mostly nondescript here.
As for the mix-mash of sounds, G N’ R’s ’80s sex-grime is mostly intact. Listening, one can’t help but think of bleached-blonde hair, acid-washed jeans, and hookers snapping bubble-gum: In other words, the ’80s L.A. rock scene. STP’s sound—really just a ’90s update of ’70s arena rock—is less evident. Weiland has never been the ab-fab rock-singer he seems to think he is (“Set me free / ’Cause I think you need my soul”). His best work often mimicked other vocalists and when he found his own voice (a breathy whine) on Tiny Music…Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop, most were sorry he had. Despite being bolstered by echo effects and background vocals, Weiland’s voice sounds worn-out on Contraband.
Finally, we can talk about Velvet Revolver as a unit. Obviously, their sound is dated, but unlike fellow super group Audioslave (a focused coupling of contemporary (i.e. ’90s) legends), Velvet Revolver is a forced fusion of two distinct decades of hard rock, which neutralizes the net quality of their sound.
Whereas a formative producer might have forced some sonic sensibility onto these four super-egos (as Rick Rubin did with Audioslave), VR chose to produce this one themselves. The lackluster result is noticeable not only in Weiland’s washed-out vocals, but in the rhythm section, where beyond his glittery solos, even Slash seems to sound murky. The three ballads here (“Fall to Pieces”, “You Got No Right”, and “Loving the Alien”) are the exception, as two of the three were co-produced with Douglas Grean. The result is a clear and earnest trio of breather tracks, though lyrically they don’t hold a candle to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or “November Rain”. Weiland’s lyrics, too, are stronger on the ballads, where he’s not hedged in by the usual instrumental bombast. The subjects he chooses to sing about waver between anger at the media’s portrayal of his drug problems and earnest regret over the pain he’s caused his wife. Lyrics like “I broke through the ice / She won't be coming back again / It's been a year and a night” hit the emotional mark. “Loving the Alien”, a self-described “art-rock” ballad, most aptly sums up the denial of drug addiction in its lines, “Sometimes is all the time / And never means maybe / Sometimes is all the time / Maybe”.
Of the R-O-C-K tracks, standouts include “Set Me Free”, “Slither” and “Dirty Little Thing”, the last of which shamelessly mimes STP’s “Cracker Man”. The remaining seven tracks suffer from a marked awkwardness. Either the band doesn’t seem to know what Weiland is looking for or Weiland can’t seem to find melodies to wrap around what is too often a busy, inaccessible backdrop. Whatever the cause, VR is a band still feeling their way together. The pessimist in this reviewer reckons that this rehab-quintet will flameout fast, but the optimist retorts that it’s reasonable to think a long string of live shows will allow VR to meld whatever seams remain.
Contraband is an album that will grow on you if you indulge it. In a time when The Darkness is successfully parodying cock-rock, members of Velvet Revolver are still earnestly carrying the torch. Whether you think that’s noble or laughable will probably determine your opinion of this album.
Reviewed by: R. S. Ross
Reviewed on: 2004-06-22