“This is NOT American Idol!”
...or so was the constant implied assertion of Rock Star: INXS, the CBS take on the Idol formula that turned TV-viewer votes, an actual band, a pile of contestants who were already seasoned performers, and some really good-looking hosts into poor ratings and an abbreviated season. Of course, one of the likely reasons for those poor ratings was that constant drive to separate this show from Idol. For one, the audience votes were never definitive—the remaining members of INXS always had the final say as to who stayed and who went home, a shifting of responsibility which in turn leads to less audience devotion to a favorite contestant. There was also the vaguely unsettling spectre of Michael Hutchence, for whom the constant reminders of how great he was never quite overshadowed the fact that he was being replaced by a highly corporate television show. And then, of course, there was the questionable popularity of INXS, a band who would probably have had a hard time selling 100,000 copies in the United States if Hutchence was still around and making music with the band he defined.
Of course, the show went on, and J.D. Fortune, hardly a favorite at the beginning of the show, separated himself from the pack at the end (despite INXS’s constant assurance that it was a very difficult decision) to win his place as lead singer of INXS. His debut with the band is the oh-so-cleverly titled Switch.
What Switch makes obvious is the fact that, for all its faux-rebellion and embrace of rock star cliché, Rock Star: INXS is still an American Idol clone; that is, Switch sounds like the kind of first album an Idol winner would make. It sounds rushed, undercooked, and a bit uncomfortable, and it even features a cameo from another contestant. Switch doesn’t sound like an INXS album, it sounds like Rock Star INXS: The Album.
Fortune (a fantastic stage name that he actually took from his mother’s maiden name), for his part, does an admirable job trying to fill the shoes of Mr. Hutchence—when he’s crooning, he sounds eerily similar to the departed vocalist, though when he explodes for the big climactic moments he sounds a bit more like Bowie by way of Scott Weiland, which isn’t really as bad as it sounds. Predictably enough, Fortune sounds most comfortable on the songs that he helped write. Switch opens with two of those songs, “Devil’s Party” (the less sinister, more fun-loving flipside of “Devil Inside”), and current single “Pretty Vegas”, an incredibly catchy little ditty from which Fortune drew much of his support in the last few episodes of the show. The latter especially puts Fortune’s strengths on display, giving him a chance to use his background as an Elvis impersonator to solid, delightfully smarmy effect.
What truly turns this album into an Idol-influenced beast is the presence of myriad guest songwriters, most of whom at least collaborated with primary INXS songwriter Andrew Farriss, but all of whom left an indelible mark on these songs. Desmond Child (famous for turning Bon Jovi into a hit machine) is here, The Matrix (who helped ruin Liz Phair) is here, and even Guy Chambers (Robbie Williams’ longtime hitmaker) is along for the ride. The U2-lite that Child put together actually works pretty well for Fortune and the band on “Afterglow”, a song that would seem to allude to Fortune’s emulation and idolization of Hutchence. The Matrix also turns in a hit on “Perfect Strangers”, which features some solid saxophone work, courtesy of Kirk Pengilly. Chambers, however, just doesn’t quite know how to fit his songwriting style into the INXS template, as the maudlin “Us” (“You’re shining in the darkness / When you open up your heart” is one of many choice lines) drives home. Chambers and The Matrix even team up on one song, the impressively awful “Hot Girls” which I think is supposed to sound like a party (with strippers, most likely) but comes off more like a dirty old man—that is, uncomfortable and a bit inappropriate.
Switch finishes on the note of “God’s Top Ten”, a tribute to Hutchence that features Suzie McNeil, the last female Rock Star contestant voted off. Suzie actually makes a decent case that she’d have been a good fit for the band with a strong performance here that outshines Fortune’s—evidently, he hasn’t learned to evoke “tender” too successfully as of yet. And, you know, that’s the type of criticism that could be levied at the whole album. This does not sound like an established band that’s had a chance to gel, it’s more like the debut album by an artist that happens to have hired some solid studio musicians. Fortune hasn’t had a chance to learn the ropes as much as he could, and Farriss hasn’t quite perfected writing for him. Some of the songs are decent, but there’s no identity to Switch. The tight corporate timetable called for an album, and quick, and the final product reflects that rush.
Fortunately, if Kelly Clarkson’s proven anything in the last year, it’s that an Idol‘s second album is the one to pay attention to. Perhaps despite Rock Star‘s Idolphobia, the same will hold true for INXS.