Heart Full of Soul: The Return of Living Colour
The rumors of Living Colour’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. They are back, but perhaps more to the point, they were never really gone. The Chair in the Doorway, their fifth official album in 21 years, should not lead anyone to conclude that this band is rock music’s Rip Van Winkle. None of them have been sleeping: they seem to disappear for extended siestas, only to return enervated and voracious. Of course, as more committed fans are well aware, these interminable hiatuses (this release represents only the second album of original material since 1993’s Stain) are a mixed blessing. If the guys had gotten their acts together, so to speak, would we have been treated to more classic efforts in this past decade or so? Certainly. But then, would we have gotten the bounty of solo projects—all interesting, some essential—that the individual musicians have dropped? Probably not. On balance, the collected works represent the best of both worlds.
The good news is that The Chair in the Doorway is exquisite enough to make casual fans lament the ostensibly lost time. Those fans are encouraged to make an effort getting acquainted with the considerable blessings contained in works like Trippy Notes for Bass (Doug Wimbish), Native Lands (Will Calhoun), Hymns (Corey Glover), and the gamut of Vernon Reid releases (especially Mistaken Identity and Other True Self).
While 2003’s Collideoscope was a welcome if uneven release (“Song Without Sin”, “A ? of When” and “Operation: Mind Control” are excellent additions to the Living Colour canon; the unfortunate cover of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” not so much), The Chair in the Doorway represents more than a return to form. Something about contemporary cataclysms seem to serve as a call to action for this band: Collideoscope was very much a post-9/11 statement, and many of the songs on The Chair in the Doorway sound like a wrathful response to last year’s Wall Street fiasco.
To assert that the band has still got it going on is a given (check out this album), and to confirm that they remain one of the more powerful live acts on the planet is simple (catch them in concert). The arithmetic is actually rather straightforward: take three ridiculously accomplished and ambitious musicians, add one of the most expressive and naturally gifted singers of his generation, and genius follows like a happy shadow. Put another way, it would require serious effort for Living Colour to underwhelm, they are that good.
As if to squash any potential misgivings (are these cats too old? can these guys still rock?), the band comes out blazing on “Burned Bridges”: after a slow-boiling techno-esque introduction, the song explodes. Calhoun and Wimbish lock into a boot-stomping groove, and Glover sings with a healthy chip on his shoulder, snarls echoing into the soaring chorus. Like any effective album opener, this one sets a tone, and that tone is menacing but ultimately cathartic.
And then there is Vernon Reid. At this point, every note he plays adds to a body of work that justifies his name being mentioned in any discussion of all-time great axemen. Reid was already a man amongst boys when Living Colour broke through in the late ‘80s, and he has never stopped absorbing and innovating, crafting a technique that is virtually all-encompassing. For anyone who might assume that wisdom and experience have mellowed him out, have no fear: Vernon still shreds like a cheese grater. Practically every second of every song bears Reid’s imprint: ear-popping virtuosity (the solos are short, sharp shocks of grin-inducing bliss) and layer upon layer of nuanced, ceaselessly articulate cries and whispers. Reid has always employed a more-is-more M.O., in part because his guitar is such an obvious extension of his ever busy brain, yet he can say more in a few perfectly chiseled seconds than most players can manage in an entire tune. Those moments unfold in a continuous stream over the course of these 11 songs.
It is immediately apparent (and reinforced after subsequent listens) that the band put considerable thought into this album. Everything from the order of the songs to the production sounds like the result of a shared vision and a near-perfect plan. A few words about the production: having heard much of this material live a couple of weeks before receiving the disc, it seems apparent that the band sought to harness their ferocious sound without taming it. The songs were scorching in person, and while the sparks certainly fly throughout the recorded versions, there is a certain feeling unifying the proceedings. The finished product is fresh and clean, but retains an abrasiveness that gives it a most welcome edge. As ever, Living Colour’s cauldron bubbles over with rock, soul, hip-hop, metal, blues and their own idiosyncratic expression, a heart full of soul.
For an album that resonates with testimonies of lessons learned (“That’s What You Taught Me”) and self-explanatory smackdowns (“DecaDance”, “Hard Times”, “Out of My Mind”), there is a typical—and expected—air of adventure and variety throughout. Highlights include the fresh but filthy blues romp “Bless Those”, the almost slo-mo funk freak-out “Method” (one of Glover’s finest moments), and the final track “Not Tomorrow”, which, improbably, manages to sound urgent and subdued, like time’s really up. The shining light burns brightest on the album’s succinct statement of purpose, “The Chair”. It’s all over in two minutes and change, but it stays with you: the muted and compressed guitar intro recalls “Information Overload” (from Time’s Up), while the uneasy vibe recalls the nervous malaise of Stain. The final result, quite simply, is a composition that only Living Colour could create, circa 2009. There is so much going on here, so many sounds cresting toward a disorienting momentum, it feels like being pulled out to sea in a current of quicksand.
It is right, then, to celebrate the return of a beloved band. It is also appropriate to acknowledge that, five albums in, Living Colour has solidified their standing as one of the most consistent, original and important bands America has produced. There’s little left to say: kick the chair out of the doorway and get this essential album into your life, immediately.