I can’t help but like Slash. Wielding a Gibson guitar as his trademark top hat and shades sat atop his curly locks, the guitarist held his own in high-profile hard rock bands against tempestuous (Guns ‘N Roses’ Axl Rose) or erratic (Velvet Revolver’s Scott Weiland) frontmen to consistently come off as the coolest person on stage. In his latter-day, vice-free interviews, Slash certainly seems like a cool, laid-back kind of guy, a rarity given the company he usually keeps. If I drank, Slash is certainly a dude I’d like to have a beer with.
So if Slash wants to get off his butt and record an album instead of waiting for Velvet Revolver to sort itself out following the departure of Scott Weiland, I’m all for it. And if he decides to rope in able sidemen Chris Chaney (bass) and Josh Freese (drums) to join him for the ride, hell, all the better. Problem is, his first proper solo album Slash is one of those “hot-shit guitarist records an album with various high-profile guest vocalists” deals (featuring luminaries including Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop, Lemmy Kilmister, Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas, and a bunch of other fine folks not typically recognized by a single name), and I can’t help but be instinictively wary of that sort of undertaking. The success rate for that type of record is low, and odds are stacked against Slash that he won’t match the stunning awesomeness of Dave Grohl’s Probot metal side-project, much less the mega-blockbuster commercial success of Carlos Santana’s Supernatural.
The problem that frequently plagues this type of project can be explained using rock ‘n’ roll mathematics (take notes, there will be a quiz on volumes one through eleven). Say you’ve got a 12-track album by your average well-known rock group. On average, one or two of those tracks will be jaw-droppingly brilliant (or catchy enough to be singles, if you want to be cynical), four more will be pretty good, four to five will be pretty average, and two will just plain suck. Bear in mind a group like this has had plenty of time to work out the kinks; if they’ve stuck around long enough, it’s a given they gel well enough together. Now imagine the same musicians playing with a different singer on each song. Even if the band has its act together on its end throughout, there’s no guarantee that they’ll mesh well with whomever they are teamed up with on every single occasion. The average numbers won’t work out to the same level of consistency, because instead of applying that average to the entire record, you have to apply that average to each individual track.
With all that in mind, I can say I’m surprised that Slash is as decent as it is. It’s still by no means a great album (and certainly not a patch on Slash’s best work), but it’s a record I think Slash can live with, blemishes and all, given he’s desperately in search of a suitable outlet for his backlog of riffs right now. Yes, there are the expected stinkers. Probably the one rock fans dreaded the most upon hearing the list of collaborators was “Beautiful Dangerous” featuring Fergie. However, it isn’t a terrible song for the reasons people might have expected it to be (namely, because they think Fergie is lame to begin with). Slash’s pre-release statement that he chose Fergie because she has a voice suited for singing rock songs is validated here, because the woman does have some serious vocal power. But the material she’s given is atrocious. “Beautiful Dangerous” sounds like low-rent Garbage, morphing into something truly wince-inducing as the prechorus comes around and it sounds like Fergie has started singing some ersatz karaoke rendition of GNR’s “Paradise City”. Elsewhere, the opening cut “Ghost” plays to the worst inclinations of Ian Astbury’s main group the Cult with its repetitive goth-meets-glam metal riff and its throwback cock-rock posturing. Myles Kennedy bizarrely is the only singer to appear on two tracks, “Back from Cali” and “Starlight” (the latter of which begins with an aggravatingly piercing guitar lick), specializing in the trite, swaggering post-Hinder arena rock that I still can’t believe anyone willingly listens to.
What’s more disappointing is how a majority of the album’s content is either miscast or workmanlike. The Ozzy and Iggy cuts (“Crucify the Dead” and “We’re All Gonna Die”, respectively) are unremarkable, routine workouts for the legendary frontmen. We know they can do more than what they offer here, and it’s a shame they don’t push outside of their comfort zones. The Chris Cornell track “Promise” unwisely places the Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman amidst psychedelia-tinged sub-Iron Maiden. Kid Rock’s gruff balladry on “I Hold On” is yet another installment in ongoing saga of the former rapper’s head-first immersion in good ol’ boy classic rock and country. The Lemmy showcase “Doctor Alibi” is alright, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a song better suited for a menacing Scott Weiland turn instead. “Watch This”, a jam featuring Dave Grohl and Slash’s GNR/Velvet Revolver brother-in-arms Duff McKagen, promises much on the surface but is little more than an unfulfilling toss-off jam. What’s more, it seems someone mixed Grohl’s drums down on the track, a misguided tactic that boggles the mind given you have Dave freaking Grohl on drums. That’s like asking Superman to carry a pillow for you when you’re moving furniture into your new house.
The genuine bright spots on Slash are a motley bunch. “By the Sword” is probably the album’s best offering, allowing Slash and Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale to indulge in a mutual appreciation of Led Zeppelin. Home to the album’s best batch of riffs, the song also allows Stockdale to have fun throwing out as many blatant Robert Plant-isms in his vocals as he can get away with without instigating a lawsuit from the Golden God himself. Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows of all people gets the album’s heaviest track, the brutal metal rush of “Nothing to Say”, which stands as one of the record’s few truly exhilarating moments. Shadows acquits himself well here, but imagine what could have been if Ozzy or Lemmy took a stab at writing lyrics to this cut. Despite awkward verses where Maroon 5’s Adam Levine gropes around blindly for decent hooks, “Gotten” congeals as it makes it way to the chorus, demonstrating that Slash can turn out some truly decent ballads here if paired with the right voice. One cut that should definitely not be overlooked is “Saint Is a Sinner Too”, where the relatively low-profile Rocco DeLuca croons in a wavering falsetto against Slash’s classically-tinged arpeggio figures and tasteful Latin guitar lines.
Aside from the more specific flaws that inhabit much of the record, the main issue with Slash is that it lacks charisma. No matter how well-crafted the arrangements are (Slash, unlike some rockers these days, knows how to write a song) or how talented the singers are, the performances lack that elusive spark Slash finds when working with those difficult-yet-compelling vocalists that compliment him perfectly. For a guy that’s one of the most charismatic guitar gods of his generation, that’s a big problem. The rock bombast is here in spades, but the gripping appeal intrinsic to the kind of music Slash specializes in is noticeably lacking. Bluntly, Slash doesn’t rock effectively enough. Now, I don’t think I’m being wholly unreasonable in asking frigging Slash to totally rock my face off. It’s kind of his job. The man quite literally lists “rocker” as his occupation in his tax forms. And with the lineup he’s assembled, I’d expect a record that rocked so hard it should be banned in 44 states. Except it doesn’t. It’s mostly just there. And that’s because he simply isn’t working with the right set-up of people to fulfill his needs as a songwriter and as a performer.
Slash goes through all the proper motions (distorted guitars, squint-eyed staring-into-the-distance guitar solos, loads of star power), but the end product doesn’t satisfy me on a visceral level, and closer examination only magnifies the fact Slash can’t establish instant chemistry with just any name he pulls out of his address book. Slash himself isn’t really the problem here, so here’s hoping whomever the new Velvet Revolver singer will be has got what it takes to complete him.