The term “supergroup” is supposed to bring to mind some great assemblage of rock gods at their peak, but let’s face it: most of these collaborations occur because some washed-up old rock stars are so desperate to rekindle the musical magic that they’ll jam with just about anyone. Named after a John Wayne movie and comprising Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, Kelley Deal of the Breeders, the Frogs’ Jimmy Flemion, and Jimmy Chamberlain of Smashing Pumpkins, the Last Hard Men is a supergroup of sorts. This seemingly mismatched group of collaborators came together in 1996-97, but until recently had released just one song, a cover of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”, which appeared on the Scream soundtrack. According to Bach, the full-length release was tied up due to the legal issues raised by all four members being signed to different record labels. It’s also not hard to see why their labels weren’t too interested in the project. Flemion is a cult figure, and Bach, whose most recent success has come from starring in musicals like Jekyll and Hyde and The Rocky Horror Show, now appeals more to suburbanites than the metal masses. Deal and Chamberlin, though members of successful alternative bands, are less known for their musical contributions than for their drug problems.
What’s surprising about this much-delayed project, then, is that the collaboration works. The seemingly unrelated artists share some hard-rocking roots, and bring out one another’s strengths. Kelley Deal’s talents have hardly been tapped in the Breeders, where her twin sister Kim’s penchant for artiness and distortion dominate. With her solo project, the Kelley Deal 6000 (which also included Flemion), the lesser known Deal sister proved herself to be a versatile vocalist and a fine writer of skewed pop songs. What’s more, Deal’s love for hard rock became obvious during the group’s live shows, where she would often launch into Motorhead covers. So it’s not too surprising to find her joining forces with Bach, who also finds freedom in the Last Hard Men project to explore a musical side most listeners won’t expect from him. His voice now supple and powerful (likely from all that Broadway preparation), Bach gives surprisingly moving and mature takes on ballads such as “The Most Powerful Man in the World” and “Who Made You Do It?” and rocks fiercely on “Sleep” and “School’s Out”.
The gripe most listeners will have is that the album is stylistically all over the map. Alternative rock fans will be happiest with Deal’s contributions, which feature catchy melodies and her bizarrely playful lyrics. On “The Last Hard Men”, she envisions a world where “Every book’s a western / Every song a hit / Every pitch a homer / And every dog a pit”. All of her songs are winners, including the deadpan samba cover of the politically incorrect Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “I Enjoy Being a Girl”. Bach, on the other hand, alternates between throat-shredding metal and melodramatic, though adept, “monster ballads”. The only real unity to the album is provided by mini-interviews Flemion conducts with each of his bandmates.
Searching for thematic unity, though, isn’t the way to approach this album. If you view it as four underrated musicians retreating from their reputations and your expectations to jam and have some fun, you’re more likely to find something you like.