[21 February 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“As they say, God bless America,” Daniel Ash says midway through “American Dream”, a song he originally recorded with Love and Rockets. But instead of starting in with the inevitable Great Evil bashing, he exclaims, “Fuckin’ right! It’s been very good to me, that’s for sure.” His refreshing perspective is not without reason: America gave Love and Rockets a steady run of college radio success that peaked with a Gold album and Top Ten single, 1989’s “So Alive”, while the rest of the world shrugged and got out its old Bauhaus records.
Despite that short-lived mainstream success, Ash has always projected the aura of a much more massively popular rock’n'roll star. With his black leather, spiky hair, and icy confidence, he was the coolest member of all three of his former groups: Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets. While he’s been dismissed as a Marc Bolan knockoff, his effects-heavy guitar playing and subtle, highly affected singing style have influenced two generations of goth/punk/alterna rockers. Now, fast approaching 50, he’s doing the downside-of-career-live-retrospective-thing. As Come Alive reveals, though, there are still some good reasons to care.
Recorded on a 2002 American tour (and possibly held back to coincide with the recent Bauhaus reunion?), Come Alive features a satisfying sampling of Ash’s solo material, as well as some Love and Rockets and Tones on Tail evergreens, with one Bauhaus offering for good measure. Taking center stage (backed by a workmanlike but never-intruding rhythm section) allows Ash to enter full rock’n'roll mode, mostly for better and sometimes for worse.
True to format, the album starts off with a run of songs from the then-current, overlooked solo album. “Come Alive” nearly ruins things before they get going, crushing Ash’s cool beneath cock-rock guitar noise and senseless screams. The attempt to hip it all up with some breakbeats is almost laughable, and echoes Love and Rockets’ ultimate failure to convincingly embrace Ash’s rave-y leanings.
Thankfully, it’s all uphill from there. Most of the other solo material is strong, sticking to the same musical and lyrical themes Ash has always favored: alternating blasts of psychedelia and glam-rock sheen, and seductively evil women with just plain evil ones. “Ghost Writer” even employs a convincing reggae rhythm a la “She’s in Parties”. Ash has always made wise choices of cover versions, so it’s disappointing that a take on Classics IV’s “Spooky” falls flat until Ash saves it by segueing into “Come Alive”, which he for once renders with pride instead of the spite that dogged it in Love and Rockets’ later years.
This is a good chance to re-discover some overlooked tunes, too, like the clever, serene title track to Love and Rockets’ underrated Sweet FA, or Ash’s own hard-charging “Get Out of Control”. But it’s the Tones on Tail stuff that wins you over. Occupying a crack in the early ‘80s between Bauhaus and L&R, Tones were the most clever, fun jazz-goth-pop-synth-dance act you may never have heard of. An attempt to rawk up their club hit “Go” doesn’t translate too well to disc, but “Christian Says” is as badass as ever, with Ash’s guitar slithering through like a boa.
Through it all, Ash sounds like he’s having fun, inciting the crowd and engaging in humorous banter, revealing a personality that was always hidden beneath those dark shades during his heyday. Newcomers would be better off starting with the Tones catalog and following the used CD bins from there, but Come Alive isn’t quite the footnote it could easily have been.