When you stop and think about it for a minute, the very idea of rock and roll is totally ridiculous. The world inhabited by rock stars is a preposterous reality; one in which fully grown men are allowed to dress up in leather well into their 40s, turn up for work smashed off their faces and then proceed to strut across stages like constipated peacocks. Yet still, we remain in thrall to it. Hearing a gnarled rock and roller talk about doing copious amounts of mind bending drugs is dangerous and sexy, whereas overhearing Dave the plumber from down the pub going on about doing a line of coke in the bogs is a non-event.
It’s the same thing with hearing a familiar distorted telecaster riff being played over a 4/4 backbeat. We’ve all heard it a million times before, but it still has the power to quicken the pulse and steal the heart. It’s certainly something that Primal Scream all too aware of, and even as they enter their mid-40s, they’re as in thrall to this rock and roll sound as we are. Indeed it could be said that the Scream’s entire career has been a wasted tour through rock and roll’s best and most ridiculous moments. It’s all there: from the Bourbon-soaked Southern rock, fuzzy glam melodies and furious techno punk of the music, to the whirlwind of excess and intake that the band threw themselves into with gleeful abandon. It comes as a massive bummer then that this, the most shamelessly out-and-out rock and roll record of their career, feels so flat and strangely lifeless.
Because the thing is, Primal Scream have frequently been far more than a rock and roll history lesson and at times have teetered on the edge of brilliance. 1991’s Screamadelica is rightly lauded as one of the most blindingly uplifting records ever. A shimmering, transcendental masterpiece, it was every bit as important to its acid-house times as something like Exile on Main Street was to the early ‘70s. Even after the lumpen Lynyrd Skynyrd/Credence pastiche that was Give Out But Don’t Give Up, Vanishing Point was a blissfully dubbed out experiment, before 2000’s XTRMNTR found the band politicised and wired, tearing through electronic terrorist punk and sounding utterly vital.
Well, Riot City Blues sounds like those moments of adventure never happened. It’s the most blatant and least imaginative record Primal Scream have ever made. Every twist and turn here was signposted some 30 years ago. The big, dumb Bowie riffs and Jagger-esque shapes that are slapped all over Riot City Blues are predictable, familiar and at times hilarious. Which frankly wouldn’t matter a jot if the tunes here were kick-in-the-balls, seat-of-the-pants fantastic. Only they’re not. And while I have no problem whatsoever with the absurdity of a 40-something father drawling on about overdoses and giving head to priests (“Suicide Sally & Johnny Guitar”), when the tune is as non-existent and lazy as this it gets boring fucking quickly. As for the lyrics, we surely can’t not mention the delights that Bobby Gillespie has cooked up for us here. Taking rock and roll clichés to new extremes, they really are something else. The listener is confronted with a constant barrage of “loaded guns”, “motorcycle rides” and “baby’s”, “honey’s” and “sugar’s”, which are either brilliantly dumb or more likely, just plain embarrassing.
Like a living, breathing museum of rock and roll past, almost every song here is played out as homage to Gillespie’s heroes. There’s the sub T-Rex shuffle of “We’re Gonna Boogie”, the New York Dolls’ gonzo punk-pop of “Dolls (Sweet Rock and Roll”)” and oh look, The Rolling Stones, just about everywhere else. In going hell for sweaty leather to make the ultimate document of rock and roll fandom, the sense of adventure and, let’s face it, excitement that pulsed through an album like XTRMNTR has been well and truly stunted. As it is, other than the mildly interesting Eastern-tinged drone of “Little Death” the only decent song here is the recent single “Country Girl”. A fantastically catchy Stonesy barn-dance, it features a snaking mandolin solo and exhalant chorus, and it’s at least ten times more exciting than anything else on the album. Which basically means that you may as well switch Riot City Blues off after three minutes.
Riot City Blues would make a wonderful addition to any pub’s jukebox, but it’s galling how ordinary Primal Scream sound when they’re not crackling with the sparks of invention that coloured a record like Screamadelica. Sure the playing is shit hot, and there’s no doubting the conviction of it all, but without the input of people like Kevin Shields, Jagz Kooner or Andrew Weatherall—clearly more that just outside collaborators—Riot City Blues is a mess of stodgy bar-band pastiche pieces. Of course, the unbelievably dumb lyrics, Gillespie’s transatlantic garage sneer, and the musical tributes make it clear that Riot City Blues is not meant to be taken as anything more than a party album. Which would be absolutely fine and worthy of anyone’s 10 quid if, like The New York Dolls or T-Rex, it was actually any good. Ultimately though, it’s not about elitism or inverted musical snobbery, it just that when it comes down to the nitty gritty, Riot City Blues sounds like it’s been made by a band on rock and roll autopilot. It’s a record without the sense of impending danger or collapse that makes truly great rock and roll so thrilling, and as such, is instantly forgettable.
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