Much like Les Claypool's eccentric ensemble Primus, Jane's Addiction's debut was a live album, a rather unusual tactic for a new group but one that makes sense in the context of the band's unconventional career path.
The band employed this eponymous debut as a sort of introduction to the group's unique sound (unique at the time of its release, that is; since then a plethora of underground alternative acts have lifted the style pioneered by Jane's Addiction), and sure enough they subsequently emerged as the hottest unsigned rock outfit of their times, pursued by an array of record labels desperate to capture this new musical phenomenon and exploit it to their fullest.
Thus starting with a live album proved to be a sagacious strategy, winning a multitude of fans long before their proper studio debut. And from a qualitative perspective the decision to make their eponymous outing a live release scarcely made a difference; the band had decent enough instrumental chops, and their live material sounds much the same as their studio fare. If anything the live environment enhances the group's sound, as the band benefits from the added energy inherent to concert performances.
One of the first things that one notices about the band is also the focal point of much of the controversy surrounding the group, namely frontman Perry Farrell's high pitched vocals. For many his pseudo-whining tone (one that certainly lacks the beauty of Neil Young's signature vocals) is a major obstacle toward enjoying the band; while I'd agree that his tone can be trying at first, I was able to acclimate to his vocals fairly rapidly, neither hating nor loving them, though truth be told Farrell's suspect singing is really the least of the album's problems.
As a seminal underground alternative act, Jane's Addiction derive much of their semi legendary status from their historical significance, but, for me at least, their work doesn't hold up too well, and I doubt I'd have especially cared for it even in its proper context.
One of Jane's Addiction's primary flaws are Farrell's lyrics, which tend to be pretentious, angsty effluvia of the worst kind. While some of the songs' lyrical decadence may hearken back to the Velvet Underground, they uniformly lack the overarching intelligence that informed numbers like Venus In Furs and Heroin. To be honest, Farrell's nihilistic, vapid lyrics make the late Kurt Cobain seem like a poet Lauriat, and thus the caliber of his juvenile, self-important verse heavily detracts from the quality of the album as a whole.
Some of the band's major influences are rather transparent given the track listing. Jane Says is an obvious homage to the Velvet Underground, a would be moving confessional intended to be a successor to the whole '(insert female name here) Says' series that began with the beautiful catharsis of Candy Says. Needless to say, Jane Says is a far cry away from its predecessors, making it all too clear that Farrell doesn't have a fraction of the talent of Lou Reed.
The Velvet Underground obsession doesn't end with Jane Says, as Jane's Addiction even go so far as to include an actual cover, in this case of the Loaded highlight Rock 'N' Roll which, since it's decently handled, is the de facto best song of the album.
While I don't see too many traces of their influence, the Rolling Stones' are also covered with an anemic rendition of Sympathy For The Devil (whose title is randomly shortened to Sympathy). This classic satanic anthem is savagely butchered by the band, with its only interesting trait being the clever way in which Rock 'N' Roll fluidly segues into it.
The album's problems extend beyond the lyrics, however; much of the music seems to simply be a procession of primitive riffs accompanied by an obnoxious, abrasive sound that's drenched in archetypal juvenile frustration and misanthropy. The band's vapidity is staggering, and ultimately they're unequipped to handle the basic metallic rock they practice let alone all of the artistic tendencies they engage in to make the album more meaningful (a futile endeavor if there ever was one).
The music isn't always painful; there are the occasional moody passages and catchy riffs to be found, and the band rocks quite convincingly, but everything is inevitably sabotaged by the group's contradictory anti-intellectual sound and artistically ambitious nature.
The band simply radiate primitivism on all fronts, both musical and lyrical. This can be deceptive, as the musicians are sufficiently strong that they can handle complex instrumentation if they're called upon to do so, rendering this primitivism somewhat illusory, but this fact does little to redeem one's faith in the band.
The album's angry, empty, juvenile, fashionably cynical character is simply anathema to me, as I see little intelligence in either the music or lyrics. As songwriters the group fails to impress on their first outing, and the live energy can't hope to compensate for the rudimentary nature of most of the melodies.
Thus Jane's Addiction's coming out party turns into a monumental debacle. Why record companies lusted after the group upon hearing the album eludes me, but then again I suppose it resonates with the current ethos of the younger generation with its primal anger, relentless brooding and anti-authority tone, much like the Sex Pistols connected with a working class audience with their own brand of anger and relentless nihilism.
Whatever the reason may be, Jane's Addiction developed a rabid cult following based on their live debut alone, a devoted fanbase that would only expand in time, to the point where one of their albums went gold. There was obviously something that resonated with its audience on a deep level, allowing the group to become the definitive alternative underground band of their time.
In 1988 Janes's Addiction had a lot of hype to live up to; myriad record companies had been pursuing the band, and now that they were set to make their major label debut they were placed in the awkward, uncomfortable position of having to justify the company's investment in them.
Sure enough, the record company executives' expenditures paid off for them; Nothing's Shocking managed to stay on the charts for a reasonably good deal of time, and slowly but surely mainstream awareness of the group was increasing, a phenomenon that would peak when their subsequent album went gold.
As for Nothing's Shocking, it's certainly vastly superior to its lackluster predecessor, albeit afflicted with many of the same flaws that characterized their live debut; the group's basic, innate atmosphere still sounds like the byproduct of primitive heavy metal excesses, while the sound of the album is, much like on their eponymous outing, something akin to a fusion of classic rock and heavy metal with incongruous art rock overtones.
Despite sharing its flaws, Nothing's Shocking attempts to compensate for these inadequacies with relatively better songwriting, a stratagem that, to a certainly degree, pays off; track like the epic Ocean Size and the anthemic Mountain Song both feature some decent riffs, while the funk rocker Idiots Rule cultivates an irresistible groove quite unlike anything else that can be found in the band's catalogue.
Still, these tracks are not without their flaws; they still contain the same noxious vibe as the other tracks, while on Ocean Size and Mountain Song the riffs may be decent enough but the songs lack much else in the melody department.
This can be frustrating, as without some of the group's inherent shortcomings some of these songs would be genuinely solid. As it stands there are a few enjoyable numbers, but by and large the music is corrupted by the band's invidious arrangements; only a scant few tracks, like the softer debut-imported Jane Says, evade this sadistic treatment, and while the song is still unexceptional, it at least gives the listener a respite from the headache inducing metallic antics of the band.
Another track that eschews the band's heavier characteristics is the minimalistic epic, Summertime Rolls, a lengthy track that never really goes anywhere and isn't sufficiently atmospheric to compensate for its lack of progression.
As always Farrell's lyrics are another liability. In terms of an egregious example of stupendously awful poetry, Ted, Just Admit Itů, an ode to the infamous serial killer, stands out, as the juxtaposition of the verses and the incessant chanting of 'sex is violent' is one of the most idiotic things I've heard in my entire life.
While it may seem unimpressive on its own, when one contrasts Nothing's Shocking with the band's debut it truly comes across as a minor classic. Even the lesser songs are a vast improvement over the filler found on the self-titled debut, while the best tracks can genuinely be enjoyable, a fact that sadly wasn't quite the case on the band's first outing.
Thus, while highly flawed Nothing's Shocking can be a surprisingly entertaining listen. The band's sound continues to grate on me throughout, but there are enough minor details to latch onto, be it a decent riff or catchy hook, to make the album at least mildly engaging. Both decent riffs and catchy hooks are admittedly in short supply on the album, but they pop up often enough to make the album a somewhat positive experience.
While Nothing's Shocking generated some positive word of mouth for the group, also garnering a lot of praise from the music critic community, it was Ritual De Lo Habitual that was Jane's Addiction's commercial breakthrough, an album that penetrated the elusive, ever coveted top 20 sales list and became the band's first (and only) product to go gold.
While it's likely a coincidence given the general lack of correlations between quality and commercial performance, Ritual De Lo Habitual also happens to be the band's best album and a huge improvement over their lackluster eponymous album and the middling effort that was Nothing's Shocking.
Right from the start the album surpasses its predecessors on a purely visceral level; the group's once ubiquitous Neanderthal undercurrents that I found so distasteful and off-putting have been diluted, making the CD's sound far more palatable, while some of the band's ever present artistic pretensions are actually realized, at least to a certain extent.
Ritual De Lo Habitual begins on a highly auspicious note with an opener that instantly surpasses every other song that the group had composed and performed before; the track I'm alluding to is the riff rocker Stop!, a number that's very catchy yet quite complex, boasting a multipart structure and numerous old fashioned false finishes that fit in with the song's title. Each section is rather strong in its own right, while the riff, though simple, is one of the best the group's concocted; these merits, when coupled with the song's relentless rock and roll energy make for a tremendous highlight in the band's catalogue, an opener that for once makes one want to hear the rest of the album.
Of course, not all the songs on the album can be compact, catchy rockers; Jane's Addiction remain far too ambitious for that conservative approach, and thus can't resist penning two lengthy behemoths, even going so far as to place them back to back in the CD's sequencing.
Fortunately these two epics constitute major highlights on the album. The first of the two, Three Days, is easily the better of the pair. In addition to more great riffs and some stellar soloing courtesy of lead guitarist Dave Navarro the song is, predictably enough, multipart (a must given its massive length), containing everything from heavy jamming to moody passages that call to mind some of Metallica's softer, atmospheric opuses like Fade To Black, Welcome Home (Sanitarium) and One (this comparison is high praise indeed, and the track manages to live up to it), all performed with passion and precision.
The second epic is entitled Then She Didů, and while it's hardly a classic it's at least a good deal more engaging than most Jane's Addiction tracks; this seems to be the consequence of a strange phenomenon in the group, wherein the shorter tracks, with only one central melody, fall flat if that tune is sub par, while on lengthier numbers the tracks have more chances to strike upon at least a few passages of decent music. This is certainly damning the song with faint praise, but the fact that the track receives any praise at all is enough for a band as consummately erratic as Jane's Addiction, and a truly bad song of that length could conceivably sabotage the entire album.
The album's biggest hit, strangely enough, isn't the single-friendly, tight rocker Stop! but rather the inferior Been Caught Stealing. The song is somewhat catchy but still very much lesser Jane's Addiction, though its poppy arrangements are certainly preferable to the band's standard metallic approach.
Another questionable fan favorite is the closing ballad Classic Girl, another perfectly acceptable number whose success seems rather arbitrary to me. It's mildly pretty, and Navarro strikes upon a moving guitar tone for it, but the track simply feels bland and nondescript to me, in no way offensive (there isn't really a single truly offensive song on the album, a huge improvement over Jane's Addiction's past works) but still ultimately forgettable in the long run.
Nevertheless, despite the proliferation of relative filler the album is a masterpiece when compared to the group's prior output. With no bad tracks and several genuinely solid ones, some of which compose a huge part of the album thanks to their extensive lengths, Ritual De Lo Habitual bespeaks a tremendous maturation for the members of the band. The songwriting's improved, the riffs are more inventive and catchy and the melodies are more memorable. The lyrics are still abysmal, but at least the band's finally broken free of their noxious, primitive and vacuous sound which makes even the album's worst tracks far more bearable than they would have been had they been included on previous outings.
As is all too often the case, the band disbanded right after the completion of the album, just when they were poised to launch a truly impressive career. They would resurface over a decade later with their comeback album Strays, but this doesn't change the fact that the dissolution of Jane's Addiction occurred when they were right at their creative and artistic peak.
There's by no means a guarantee that Jane's Addiction's future endeavors would have been of a very high caliber; while I like Ritual De Lo Habitual it's only a classic in relative terms, by no means a masterpiece, and I also find it to be colossally overrated, but there certainly is a chance that, given more time, the band could produce a genuine masterwork. Either way, one will never find out, but at least the band left a truly solid album in its wake.
Whether the group was nostalgic or simply desperate after the failure of side projects like Deconstruction and Porno For Pyros, over a decade after the dissolution of Jane's Addiction the old moniker was resurrected for a new studio collaboration between three of the four members of the band's original lineup (bassist Avery abstained, as he had whenever the concept of reunion tours sprung up).
While it's easy to imagine the band doing a few perfunctory tours to educe some cash from the remnants of their hardcore fanbase, as they did on more than a few occasions, the prospect of a new, full fledged studio album is somewhat more perplexing. While a few rock outfits had lain dormant for a number of years, subsequently reemerging with a solid addition to their canon (the art-punk act Television springs to mind), few such comebacks yielded positive results, either critically or commercially (Television likewise failed in the latter department).
Undeterred by these bleak statistics, however, Jane's Addiction launched a comeback with Strays, the band's third studio outing (separated from their previous one by a good thirteen years). They looked to legendary producer Bob Ezrin (the mastermind behind the production of The Wall, along with other notable projects) for guidance, even going so far as to give him partial credit for each song in addition to acknowledging his obvious role as producer. This was a curious choice, and I don't really understand what possessed the group to imagine that Ezrin could adroitly translate the standard Jane's Addiction sound into the new millennium, but regardless of the motivation behind Ezrin's recruitment he certainly had a profound impact on the final product, and not necessarily a positive one.
I'll refrain from using Ezrin as a scapegoat for what's obviously the fault of the band, however, and indeed they have much to answer for. One of my central problems with Jane's Addiction has always been that they're heavily pretentious without the intelligence or insight to back it up; due to these ambitions, though, they were never a straightforward heavy metal band, incorporating aspects of classic rock and art rock into their musical vision. These elements may not always have been employed in the most creative or skillful of ways, but it still differentiated Jane's Addiction from generic, faceless metal acts.
On Strays, however, the barrier between Jane's Addiction and generic heavy metal outfits all but collapses. Their artistic side hasn't fully atrophied by any means, but nearly every song is, on a fundamental level, a generic heavy metal anthem with generic heavy metal riffs and generic heavy metal vocals. The riffs and melodies are nearly uniformly derivative, primitive and unrewarding, with few mitigating pretensions to latch onto to at least make the songs somewhat interesting, while the band's overall sound never betrays any originality or individuality.
This situation poses a crisis for the band, and one that they never address. The group simply succumbs to the allure of generic heavy metal, going through the motions as they navigate a stale genre in the least idiosyncratic way possible.
From a qualitative perspective the band can't, at this stage of their careers, compete with some of the better heavy metal acts like Metallica or Accept or Iron Maiden, and they no long have their image as an artistic band to excuse their inadequacies in this department and fall back upon. Even when they attempt to invoke their erstwhile artistic credentials they do little to help them, at most manifesting themselves in a comparatively complex arrangement or facile, would-be-intellectual lyrics.
A few tracks are at least at a somewhat higher level than the others (not that they really stand out except under the closest scrutiny), like the mildly involving The Riches as well as Wrong Girl, complete with its incongruous bluesy riff (not that the song itself is the least bit bluesy). Most of the material, however, is standard filler, drab metal with overly familiar riffs and archetypal inane angry vocals, precisely the type that the band professed to be above (not that it ever really was, for the most part).
Thus, if Strays is indeed the final Jane's Addiction album then they went out on a rather dreary note. Their finest effort, Ritual De Lo Habitual, would have made for an immeasurably better swansong, but fans seldom get what they want from rock groups in this regard, and far too many bands simply embarrassed themselves with their final outings.
So for the time being Jane's Addiction's fans are left with this pile of mediocrity as the band's swansong. The tracks aren't even that offensive, simply consummately tedious, a parade of indistinguishable heavy metal song after indistinguishable heavy metal song. A cadre of generic heavy metal performers is the last thing that Jane's Addiction would ever want to be remembered as, yet as all of their defining traits evaporated that's precisely what they've become.