[19 September 2005]
On paper, it’s easy to see how an album like Free in the Streets might appear better than it actually is. The concept is about as high as they get: replicate the high-octane charm of vintage Stooges—with a little Motorhead thrown in for good measure—using synthesizers and glammed-up drum machines (or, more precisely, real drummers that sound like machines). It’s not hard to see how an idea like this could, theoretically, be used to create something quite appealing. But after listening to the disc it becomes clear that at some point the high concept gave way to the concept of simply getting high.
In many ways, A.R.E. Weapons bring to mind the brief phenomenon of the Audio Bullys. A couple years back, in the halcyon days of 2003, the Audio Bullys crossed the Atlantic on a wave of advance hype. They were supposed to be the proverbial Next Big Thing, and I was duly looking forward to the album. But when the UPS man brought my advance copy of Ego War it turned out to be what sounded like a pair of soccer hooligans babbling over sub-Atari 2600 beats. Not exactly what I was expecting.
A.R.E. Weapons come with similar hype. Their self-titled debut album came out in 2002 and was followed by a protracted battle to extricate themselves from their major label contract. Those kind of label disputes usually ensure at least a modicum of good press for the follow-up record: critics and journalists love an underdog, and being screwed over by a major can create incredible buzz. Just look at how the fuss over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot transformed Wilco from a good band into an era-defining band.
But, ah, the obvious difference here is that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a damn fine record, whereas Free in the Streets is simply horrible. If I were a record company executive, I would have balked too.
Singer Brain F. McPeck (that’s not a typo, it’s really “Brain”) wants to be Iggy Pop so bad that I can taste it, but it’s just not happening. The best he can do on most tracks is a low-rent Glenn Danzig. There’s some later, coked-out Jim Morrison here as well, on tracks like “Hardcase” and “Brand New Walking Blues”. It’s not like great rock vocalists have to be able to sing well, but if they can’t sing, they need some charisma. The goal of Free in the Streets seems to be to make the seedy and violent seem glamorous and sensual, but McPeck’s lyrics really only succeed in making the seedy and skuzzy seem, well, seedy and skuzzy. Charisma hit the door a while back and left with the singer’s girlfriend.
“Who Rules the Wasteland?” typifies everything that’s wrong with the album. It’s got a fairly energetic rhythm, but every bit of instrumentation sounds tinny and crass. I can see the bare bones of a competent glam vamp, but McPeck’s bellowing vocals and totally uninspired lyrical content combined with the sub-Type O Negative metal posing make for a repellant experience:
“I’m cruising through the wasteland on a collision course, /
Covered in the blood of an animal corpse, /
You say my death trip won’t get me far, /
You don’t know you don’t drive in my car, /
Who rules the barren wasteland? /
I probably shouldn’t ask why anyone wants to rule a barren wasteland… I realize this kind of pseudo-metal imagery requires a willing degree of suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener, without which it just seems silly. I freely admit that by the time the bit about the blood of animal corpse came around, I was more inclined to giggle than throw my hand up in devil horns. Dio this ain’t.
“Last Cigarette” is an Alice In Chains pastiche—right down to lyrics about being a “dog on a chain”. The S&M imagery runs rampant throughout the whole album, reaching its zenith (or would it be nadir?) on “Reggie”:
“I’ve got a dog, /
He lives in a cage, /
I’ve got a dog he is a slave, /
To his desire, /
To be free, /
I’ve got a dog, /
He’s a lot like me.”
To get the full effect you need to imagine it over what sounds like the Hell High school marching band playing a Bloodhound Gang medley.
I don’t like writing overly negative reviews: I like to think that I can find something positive in even the least interesting discs that cross my desk. But after a half-dozen baffled spins of Free in the Streets I readily admit to finding little of redeeming value here. The only real question I can ask is, was this a joke? If it turns out that this is some kind of Spinal Tap spoof, then I would gladly change my poor rating to a six or even a seven. Because as far as intentionally crappy faux-glam electroclash discs go, this is simply fantastic.