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