[30 July 2010]
Back when I was young and snarky, I tended to dismiss Concrete Blonde. When I heard their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and considered the fact that their Bloodletting album was influenced heavily by Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles book series, I decided with a sniff that the group’s most creative moments piggybacked on the creative achievements of others, and moved on.
It would take some time to learn two things: 1) a band realizing its potential is a rare thing, and 2) good interpreters are few and far between. Bloodletting owed a heavy debt to Rice’s humid, wasted version of New Orleans, but it also found vocalist Johnette Napolitano’s lyrics and the band’s sound—a broad and dense post-punk style characterized by slightly twanged guitar—coming together. Whereas the band’s previous efforts had shown promise with a handful of keepers apiece, Bloodletting provided a gothic alternative for anyone who might have found the Cure’s Disintegration too mannered or stately. As part of a three-album run that included 1992’s Walking in London and 1993’s Mexican Moon, Bloodletting began a creatively fruitful period for the band, one in which they explored issues such as failed relationships, addiction, and a blend of Catholic and Hispanic imagery with often inspired results. Concrete Blonde then broke up (they would briefly reunite years later before disbanding again).
Twenty years down the line, this reissue acts as a good reminder why, despite treating them unfairly back in the day, I’ve kept Concrete Blonde’s CDs on the shelf rather than boxed up in the closet. “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” kicks things off in raucous fashion, with a slinky riff giving way to a shouted chorus. “The Sky is a Poisonous Garden” then speeds things up even further by hurtling through like a runaway locomotive in under three minutes. The record’s nocturnal vibe continues through songs like “Darkening of the Light” and “The Beast”, but Bloodletting broke the band on the strength of character studies like “Caroline” and “Joey”, which chronicled less supernatural tribulations. By this point, the band’s streetwise grit was blending with a sense of romanticism that elevated many songs above the level of straightforward vignettes.
This being a 20th Anniversary edition, the original album is supplemented by six bonus tracks. It’s disappointing, though, that four of them are available on the band’s Still in Hollywood compilation (which, if it’s out of print, isn’t terribly hard to track down in the used bins). Personally disappointing is that the live version of the Andy Prieboy-penned “Tomorrow, Wendy” discards Napolitano’s introduction to the song. To these ears, that speech added even more anger to Concrete Blonde’s definitive version of this song about a woman dying of AIDS.
Of the extras, only the b-side, “I Want You”, and the French version of “Bloodletting” might be unfamiliar to Concrete Blonde fans. The French “Bloodletting” is the most surprising. Rather than taking the easy way out by slapping French lyrics on the original backing tracks, the band reworked the song, mixing French and English lyrics, making the song a minute longer, and arguably making it sound meaner in the process. That’s a worthy addition to this album that’s stood the test of time, and even converted this former naysayer.