PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Ugly Kid Joe: Stairway to Hell EP

The early '90s grunge pranksters are back, but not quite back at their best.

Ugly Kid Joe

Stairway To Hell EP

Label: MRI / UKJ
US Release Date: 2013-04-16
UK Release Date: 2013-04-16

Seventeen years separates Ugly Kid Joe’s last album Motel California with their 2013 return Stairway to Hell. From the title alone, things feel just like the days of old, with the band back up to their old tricks (if Motel California was taking a light-hearted dig at the Eagles, their current album is an equally snarky reference to Led Zeppelin). So just what do the early ‘90s teen pranks and grunge tricksters sound like on their return? Cranked up and ready to tear speakers up – but overall not sounding nearly as good as before.

Opening “Devil’s Paradise” starts with a searing riff that practically screams with “We’re back!” bravado. Whitfield Crane's vocals this time summon a bit of a surprise. On this disc he sounds like himself – only this time coated with a gloss of Layne Staley meets Ozzy Osbourne inflection to his voice. It comes across a bit strange given their earlier works had him using a more distinctive vocal styling. As for the songs themselves, the opener is a time-warped ode to sex, drugs, rock and roll straight out of the 1990s, passed through a heavy grunge filter. It makes for a great way to get things rolling. And just as the fun starts, things take a jarring turn that almost derails the album on song two. "Makes Me Sick" is a buffet of the worst overly violent butt-rock clichés all wrapped up into a drab, thudding backing tune that is as boring as the song is silly. Fair is fair, if lyrics like the ones heard in this song are coming from a band known for violent butt-rock cliches, then it would sound fine. Here it's just out of place and sounds like they're trying too hard to be edgy. Mercifully, they redeem themselves a great deal by quieting down with "No One Survives", a pleasant respite from the crash of the first two tracks. On this cut they manage to re-capture the magic that made their cover of "Cat’s in the Cradle" a hit, only this time they do it with a song of their own.

This back and forth characterizes the album as a whole: the band mines their strength, but too often falls back on weaknesses when they reach for material that just isn't their strong suit. "Love Ain't True" wants to be the perfect sneering grunge kiss-off anthem, but is just too mean: too mean at least for the kind of music one usually expects from this band. Again, the key word is mischievous pranksters, not exactly the sort you would expect bitter breakup anthems from, not by a long shot. The free-wheeling I-don't-care attitude comes back, thankfully, with "Another Beer", which finds them taking the same bitterness they mined in "Love Ain't True" and softens it into a not-quite-grunge and not-quite-country tune extolling the virtue of simple tastes. They soften up further on "Would You Like to Be There", as close to a full-on ballad as you'll hear on a disc that is otherwise coated in sludge of both the catchy and not-so-catchy variety.

Bottom line: Ugly Kid Joe still know how to craft crunchy, fun grunge tunes, but have ultimately lost some of their spark; they've lost sight of what made them fun and enjoyable to listen to as a band, which makes this album just OK. Even so, it's not without enjoyable moments. Longtime fans will likely enjoy this, while newcomers are best advised to stick with America's Least Wanted and then come back for more if they like what they hear.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.