April 8, 2004

Faking the Blues

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The notion of Aerosmith doing an entire album of blues covers is one of those preposterous hypothetical situations that can burden a mind with so many afflictions and antinomies, your head will just collapse into your throat. On one hand, Aerosmith has been churning out some of the most smarmy, schmaltzy sheen of the 90s, bereft of emotional subtlety or insight. If you’ve just completed a stadium tour with KISS, blues integrity is probably not associated with your band. On the other hand, if Aerosmith has rarely displayed a decisive predilection for Willie Dixon or Mississippi Fred McDowell, they do sound like one blues band: in the hopes that this will be a radical, perhaps even dangerous, proposal, I will venture that Aerosmith sorta, kinda, sometimes sounds like The Rolling Stones. Between these two poles, even the album title is perilously dangling on the thin line between reverence and irony. Luckily, this is a terrible blues album. Lest we forget, terrible blues was the birth of rock, and this is a great rock album, perhaps their best since Rocks. Though the songs on Honkin’ on Bobo may be blues songs, these are not blues performances.

Appropriately then, the first song is Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner,” a tune that helped usher in a nascent genre they called “Swaying n’ Chortling” (or, if you were white, “The Breath o’ Satan’s Music”) that would eventually develop into rock ‘n roll. It’s also immediately apparent that the band is going to storm through these covers without any consideration of the song’s original tone or context: “Road Runner” begins with an escalating slate of static fuzz, Stephen Tyler’s frothing carnival barking, Joe Perry’s scrapping, slinging guitar, and those willfully clumsy “bip-bip” backup vocals. There is no hint of the frailty or agony one often finds in the blues. This music is about getting three things: girls, the devil’s gold treasure, and drunk. So maybe it is the blues after all.

At it’s hardest, the album challenges all manner of hard rock and black metal. “Baby, Please Don’t Go” filters the frantic, fidgeting riff through Tyler’s delivery: “Ah-woo, Countysherriffgoalonedogdipwopbopdoo.” The rhythm section plummets into some wasteland of writhing wraiths and withering bass. And Perry’s riff excavates so deep into hard rock, it should be funded by the Archeological Ethics and Law Department. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” is Tyler’s best moment in over a decade. His crazed “a-ha sound like Tom Waits fornicating with James Brown’s corpse, mustering the gravelly sepulchral smear of lacerated flesh of the great blues pioneers. And that’s not even the best song. On Dixon’s “I’m Ready,” wah-wahing steam pistons lurch over what sounds like the Blitz. Joe Perry sings, “I got an axe-handle pistol on a graveyard frame/ That shoot tombstone bullets wearin’ ball an’ chain/ I’m drinkin’ TNT/ I’m smokin’ dynamite.” The man is goddamn imbibing himself on explosives and seducing death with axe-guns. Now that’s what I call rock and roll.

There are moments of brief respite. The despondent cooing of “Never Loved a Girl” has a harmonica that coolly smokes across the studio and, even then, the song is shrill and plangent. The closer, “Jesus Is On the Main Line,” is all acoustic slang and grit, coupled with a genuinely spiritual gospel-warcry claptastrophe. There is one original song (“The Grind”) that clearly wilts in the company of some of the best songs ever written. This leads one to believe Honkin’ on Bobo will probably be less a return-to-form for the band, and more of a one-time-only deal. At this point, it’s the best hard rock album of the year. Don’t miss out. By this time next year, Aerosmith will probably have already ruined their career again.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor-In-Chief