In my mail I found a plain-wrap CD calling itself “Chinese Democracy,” by a certain Axl Rose. It was a funny move to appropriate the name of Rose, the singer of a little-known 1980s Aerosmith cover band called Guns N’ Roses. Though the historical Rose died in a 1992 warehouse accident, friends in his hometown of Van Nuys, California, still speak highly of his three-octave range and his skill with a forklift. They believe that if he had lived, he might have achieved regional celebrity.
Today’s Axl Rose (I’ll call him “Ax’l”) clearly aims to fulfill his namesake’s potential, and “Chinese Democracy” is an excellent first effort. When Ax’l learns to avoid the musical pitfalls every beginner encounters, he’ll be ready to hit the clubs.
One pitfall that seems not to trouble Ax’l is the money pit. The ace musicianship, the detailed production, the lavish use of an orchestra (with arrangements that resemble those of Elton John scorer Paul Buckmaster) -- all speak of a very rich kid.
But the quality of the album’s first half inclines one to forgive Ax’l his advantages. After an unpromising start -- the modernized “Louie Louie” of the title cut and the spaniel-kicking tantrum of “Shackler’s Revenge” -- tracks 3 through 7 take us on a wonderful tour of pop-rock’s last four decades.
“Better” comes on with a me-so-horny vocal mince and a Shogun wah-wah before settling into an elemental drum slog and a chesty, leaping Ax’l chant ornamented with glitchified textures; it’s fun to estimate how many different guitarists are battling for space on the sonic canvas (I say five). On “Street of Dreams,” a welling piano ballad along the lines of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Ax’l alternates a soulful lower-register plea with his more typical caterwaul to striking effect. After an intro of gut-string Spanish guitar and luxurious violins, “If the World” opens up the space with a leadfoot funk-blues groove -- the kind of riddim Manfred Mann still executes so perfectly. The heavy-rocking major-/minor-chord ballad “There Was a Time” ranks as a fave, its string-cushioned coda stretching out as long as it wants to. And “Catcher in the Rye” milks Ax’l’s attention deficit for a fairly successful if unlikely mash-up of Neil Young, Elton and Aerosmith.
Add track 12, the seasick-homesick lament “Madagascar” -- which coulda been a French-horned outtake from Procol Harum’s “A Salty Dog” except for its creative use of Martin Luther King Jr. and a bunch of other historical-cultural snippets -- and Ax’l might have been well advised to stop there, with a solid six-song demo. But he doesn’t seem like the kind of artiste who asks for advice.
Because despite the enormous teamwork it must’ve taken to assemble these 14 songs, Ax’l comes off as a headstrong young feller who never listens when somebody tries to draw the line. I guess he’s young, because youth is the time when more always equals better. Good songwriting, on the other hand, especially as exemplified by Axl’s ‘70s heroes, is a process of simplification, where you concentrate on letting a few ironshod ideas boot a listener’s head in. And a good arrangement is a support system, not a competition among elements.
Ax’l doesn’t get that; if he comes up with a notion, he’s damn well gonna squeeze it in there somewhere. Which means, amid all the vocal layerings, beat shifts, melody shifts, guitar obbligatos and orchestras, his best hooks get blunted. Maybe I’m just being old-fashioned. Everything’s an opera these days, right? Only problem is, most of us leisure-challenged 21st-century klowns don’t haul out our Verdi that often.
So I’d speculate that, as painterly as Ax’l’s soundscapes may be, not a lot of us are gonna sit around absorbing them, particularly as they lack the basic quality the mob demands of pop music: emotion. While the lyrics speak again and again of some woman who done Ax’l wrong, he rarely sounds like she broke his heart, he sounds like she stomped on his foot. The lyrics pour thick and fast (“Too many words,” says my technical adviser), but the most heartfelt message he delivers is “I’ll kick your ass, like I said that I would.” And while every song contains rock forms, Ax’l, like Bowie and Queen, isn’t a rockin’ dude at heart. A big, noisy rhythm doesn’t work its way into his crotch or ours; it’s just a way of drowning out the voices in his head.
Like I said, though -- an impressive debut. It’s not like we’ve been waiting a long time for this.
“Chinese Democracy” is available only at Best Buy. Ax’l’s dad must own the chain.