Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Chris Cornell: Not so much with the new stuff.

Chris Cornell, The Scream Tour
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, April 14

Chris Cornell: co-founder of Soundgarden, vocalist for Audioslave with 3/4 of Rage Against the Machine, remixer of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" from crotch-grabbing dance pop lite to a haunting acoustic ballad. These are pretty formidable credentials.

So what the hell is this guy doing making a retro-80s synth-electropop funkmaster trip-hop CD with Timbaland?

That's the question burning up discussion boards on Cornell's own web site, where that CD, Scream, is being roundly thrashed as deplorable garbage — with, to be fair, a couple of defenders saying "give it a week or so; it gets better" in the hopes that music fans are somehow like wine collectors. Problem is, CDs are not bottles of Bordeaux, since there's not a lot of satisfaction in buying them and then putting them in the cellar for 30 years to mature.

Not surprisingly, there's also a lot of oh crap what now discussion as those who, like WB, excitedly purchased concert tickets with visions of a "best of" revue with this talented screamer — and then received free-download links to the new album they hadn't heard anything about — worry that instead, they'll be prisoners at a two-hour listening party for something unlistenable.

Thinking exactly that, we went to the show with escape plans firmly in place: as soon as the music started to suck, we'd be outta there.

Happily, those plans weren't needed. Unhappily for Chris Cornell, word of his new CD got out before ticket sales, and what should have been a sold-out house, wasn't.

An opening act, Outernational, got off to a rough start with a groundlessly overconfident unknown longhair chiding the sparse crowd for being "prim and proper" as his band ended only its second song (maybe he was trying to emulate Billy Bob Thornton). But eventually that gaff was forgotten as the self-described "ska/punk/metal" quintet broke out some very cool mariachi horns, antique accordians, and infectious riffs to bring the audience around. There's no iTunes catalog for them, but there is an impressive name behind the music: Tom Morello of RATM, who produced the band's best work, "The Fight Song." With Bonaroo and Van's Warped Tour appearances coming up, we predict more than just a MySpace site for this band soon, but they're gonna need to stop memorizing Blue Man Group's "Rock Concert Movements #1-9" in order to stop looking like enthusiastic posers.

Then came a waaaaay-too-long gap of more than an hour between opening act and the headliner, not a good move when much of your audience is already set to evacuate the building over fears of sucky music. Audible and annoyed "if this doesn't start soon, I'm leaving" complaints erupted all around, but finally, the lights went back down and from the PA came... pre-recorded sounds playing the opening technocrap of the new album.


But here's the thing: As many have posted on Cornell's site, some of the songs actually sound okay live, even though they reek as studio versions. That, luckily, was the case with the opening song, "Part Of Me," with an unfortunately catchy chorus that simply repeats "that bitch ain't a part of me" over and over and over and over and over....

And then the show really got started. Cornell, at 45, is skinnier than most teenage boys, and he strutted and skipped and shuffled around the stage in skintight black jeans and black T-shirt with ugly brown workboots pulled up over the jeans and half untied. (Maybe he's gotten lessons in stage prowling from Alannis Morissette?) The audience regained its "prim and proper" composure while the first song went on, but when it faded out and led into familiar, beloved chords that made people smile and mouth Soundgarden to each other, the energy level went up to eleven. Classics like "Rusty Cage" and "Spoonman," along with Audioslave hits like "I Am the Highway" and "Like a Stone," helped the crowd overlook the fact that every fifth or sixth tune started with that telltale pre-recorded sound announcing a Scream track.

Each time, the energy scale dipped noticeably, although it didn't bottom out because people knew something good would follow. And if the pre-loops weren't enough of a tipoff, the quality of lyrics took a radical nosedive as well. While Cornell has never been a master lyricist, the new stuff is just repetitious and dumb. A comparison:

Hey hey I said / Near as I can figure
You gave me life / Now show me how to live

- Main chorus of Audioslave's "Show Me How To Live"

Pick it up, pick it up, watch out, now pick it up (pick it up)
Pick it up, watch out, now pick it up (pick it up)

Pick it up, watch out, now pick it up (pick it up)

Pick it up, watch out, now pick it up

- Main chorus, "Watch Out" (from Scream)

It's this kind of drivel that got the attention of none other than NIN's Trent Reznor, who attacked Cornell's new album, via a Twitter update, this way: “You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly you feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell’s record? Jesus.” Tuesday night at the show, audience reactions weren't quite so harsh, but they might be visualized like this:

Great song!
Awesome song!
Favorite song!
(new song)
Great song!
Fantastic song!...

But enough about the strange new album. "Billy Jean" received an electric, not acoustic, blues treatment, and for most of "Be Yourself" Cornell left the stage and strolled the main floor while singing. His band rocked hard and nailed all of the great tunes, and although on some songs Cornell was clearly going through the motions, at times holding the mic so far from his mouth that lyrics vanished, in general the show went far beyond didn't suck territory into a genuine hella rocked zone that left everyone happy — and very relieved.


G-Fab said...

Timely review. Might check it in Chicago this weekend at The Riv (there for HLC). I saw Arcade Fire at The Riv. But I never was much of a Soundgarden/Audioslave.

Some good metal in Chi-Town this weekend: do you know Kreator and/or Tesla?

Actually, I'll probably just hit Backyard Tire Fire at the Double Door. It's my brithday; Reich is coming. We can drink beer.

Levi Baird said...

man its sad that it came to him leavin audioslave...but just give it time and somethin great is bound to happen its not like he wont realize that people dont really like the new stuff he prolly already knows so maybe there will be a change soon and he will get back oon track..