About five years ago, when they were at the height of their powers, the Mooney Suzuki were quite simply one of the best bands around. They combined the raw energy of the MC5 with the hooks and riffs of the early Who, and a cocksure style inspired by the glory days of CBGB’s. They may have been overshadowed by the giants of the rock revival, but it always seemed as if they were on the verge of breaking through in a big way. And then, before they did, it all fell apart. The band landed a record deal with the major label suits at Columbia, who teamed them up with pop-friendly producers the Matrix (Hillary Duff, Avril Lavigne) for an embarrassing disaster of a third album. By the time the dust had cleared, drummer Will Rockwell and lead guitarist Graham Tyler had both left the band, Columbia had dropped them, and V2, their new label, essentially folded a few months later, lasting only long enough to re-release one of the group’s old EPs. By the time it came time to record another new Mooney Suzuki album, songwriter and frontman Sammy James Jr. found himself all alone.
So in reality, Have Mercy is really more a Sammy James Jr. solo record than it is a true Mooney Suzuki disc. And sadly, Sammy James Jr. is no Mooney Suzuki. It seems that a lot of what made the band so good was what Rockwell and Tyler brought to the table. Without the manic pace set by Rockwell’s Keith-Moon-rivalling drums and Tyler’s fiery guitar work, James had no hope of recreating the same intensity the band displayed in its early days, and with Have Mercy he doesn’t try. Instead, the new album sees him striking out in a new direction with his songwriting, abandoning their original tight, hook-laden fury (best displayed on early hits like “Half of My Heart” or “In a Young Man’s Mind”) in favour of a more personal, introspective tone.
As it turns out that’s not James’ strong suit. His songwriting talents are best equipped to produce raw distortion-fuelled rockers, but Have Mercy relies heavily on the slow, polished ballad. His lyrics, which were never especially deep or particularly clever, worked best in support of high octane rock and were usually about music, sex, and taking the world by storm. Here, with the drums and guitars sitting lower in the mix than in the days of Rockwell and Tyler, the lyrics—now more likely to be about coming to terms with life as an aging rock star who was never quite a star—are forced to take centre-stage. And they’re not up to the task. (“But you’ll never be older than dinosaur bones / And you’ll never be older than the Rolling Stones”, is one especially groan-inducing couplet from the chorus of the supremely cheesy “Rock ‘N’ Roller Girl”.) It’s not that his talents have escaped him completely—“99%”, the opening track, has a fun sing-along chorus; “This Broke Heart of Mine” is loose and catchy and probably the best Mooney Suzuki track recorded since their hey-day—it’s just that those talents only shine through in rare moments; he’s not playing to his strengths.
In the end, the problem comes down to the fact that Sammy James Jr. making a Mooney Suzuki record without Rockwell or Tyler makes only a little more sense than Roger Daltrey making a solo record as the Who, or Rob Tyner as the MC5. He may have been the group’s songwriter, but he was one important piece of a much greater whole. Without the other two pieces, this simply isn’t the Mooney Suzuki you know and love. That band doesn’t exist anymore. And while the first album by the “new” Mooney Suzuki might be a step up from their last record, Alive & Amplified—the failed mainstream experiment at Columbia—it’s a far far cry from the exciting sounds of their glory days.
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