[16 July 2012]
First Tupac’s hologram, then Whitney’s role in the upcoming Sparkle. Not to mention the chart-topping sales of Amy Winehouse, post-mortem. Maybe it’s something apocalyptic in the air, but it seems your best shot in the pop world these days is to kick the bucket. The dead have risen; beware the pop-rock zombies.
But Joey Ramone never courted fame and fortune, even during the short time he was alive. His latest “solo album,” which comes a decade after his death, might come off at first as a crass commercialist attempt on the part of Ramone’s brother, and album producer, Mickey Leigh. But ultimately, it’s a fitting tribute to the man who was the beating heart at the center of the Ramones, one of the greatest bands of all time.
The only other Joey “solo” album,” Don’t Worry About Me, was released in 2002, shortly after the singer’s death, featuring a popular cover of the Louis Armstrong hit “What a Wonderful World”. And while that wasn’t a great album, it was a necessary one, a cleaning of house, a ritual farewell to a great singer from a great band. ...Ya Know?, assembled from a collection of demos, outtakes, and unreleased tracks, is by no means a “great album,” and burdened by inexplicable timing, but it has enough fond memories to make it worth pursuing for true Ramones fans.
This ever-so-Frankensteinian pop album is stitched together not just by Ramone’s iconic vocals, but the guest appearances of several famous friends, including Joan Jett, Steven van Zandt, and members of Cheap Trick and the Dictators. Retroactively refitted with a glossy coating, the presumably bare-bones of Joey’s original records sound as buff and healthy as any 80s arena-rock track.
We’ll never know if those were Joey’s intentions, but the Ramones were often at their strongest with a bit of sheen (End of the Century being the best example), and the glossy production on ...Ya Know often works to its benefit. Its most successful tracks (“I Couldn’t Sleep”, a great cover of T. Rex’s “Life’s a Gas”) have a mix of winning lyrics and engaging hooks, and that’s something no production values can replicate.
Even the admittedly unimpressive tracks (“Waiting for the Railroad”, “New York City”) have an unapologetic, charming side to them. I think it’s something called the “Joey Ramone effect,” where an artist’s persona is so charming, so genuine, that you can’t help but forgive a few flaws. Ringo Starr suffers from a similar syndrome.
The largest problem is, perhaps unsurprisingly for an album like this, a lack of cohesion. The material never coalesces into anything greater than a collection of b-sides and rare numbers, and while Leigh might never have intended anything more, Joey’s memory deserves better. Coming from the Ramones, a band never known for excess (musically, at least), ...Ya Know is too long and too stuffed full of tracks that just don’t seem essential (“Eyes of Green”, “Make Me Tremble”). Twenty minutes shorter and we’d have something indispensable. But as is, it’s hard to complain about an excess of one of rock’s most unique and winning voices.
Is it up to Ramones-levels? No, not really, but then again, what is? It’s a damn decent pop collection, and I’m sure that Joey would have taken that as high praise.