Auf der Maur: self-titled

Adrien Begrand

Auf Der Maur

Auf der Maur

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2004-06-01
UK Release Date: 2004-03-01

Melissa Auf der Maur was fortunate to experience the mid '90s alternative rock explosion firsthand, witnessing its rise and eventual fall from the stage. In an era overrun with uber-cool female bass players like Kim Gordon, Kim Deal, and D'Arcy Wretzky, the Montreal, Quebec native was among the best of the bunch. It caused quite a stir in her home country when the comely bassist abruptly left her band Tinker to become the newest member of Hole, following the passing of the band's original bass player, Kristin Pfaff. Pfaff was called by many the most crucial member of Hole, so the young Auf der Maur had some big shoes to fill, but in the following years, she was able to hold her own with not only her solid bass playing, but her excellent backing vocals as well. Just listen to her give-and-take with Courtney Love on the 1996 cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Black Gold Woman", or her entrancing vocal harmonies on Celebrity Skin's "Boys on the Radio". After filling in on the Smashing Pumpkins' last two albums before the band imploded, she continued to work steadily, her most noteworthy project being Hand of Doom, her Black Sabbath tribute band, but we all knew it would be only a matter of a time before she put out a proper solo effort.

So here you have it. Unlike her beleaguered former bandmate Love, who keeps trying to become a pop rock goddess with only middling results, Auf der Maur has retreated to the heavier strains of '90s rock on her new album, the aptly titled Auf der Maur. Employing the services of producer Chris Goss (Queens of the Stone Age), as well as ex-Kyuss/current QOTSA frontman Josh Homme and former Kyuss/Fu Manchu drummer Brandt Bjork, Auf der Maur's obviously looking to put out one heavy mother of an album, and heavy this one is. Combining the booming, psychedelic stoner rock of Kyuss, the warm guitar drones of Smashing Pumpkins, the progressive melodies of A Perfect Circle, and a very sexy goth style that resembles Italian rockers Lacuna Coil, this album doesn't break new ground; in fact, the music is very ordinary, but the mere presence of Auf der Maur and her intoxicating voice makes the record a modest success.

At its best, Auf der Maur sucks you in with its hypnotically paced, darkly tinged hard rock. On "Followed the Waves", the album's lead-off single, that blend of raw desert rock and more exotic fare works perfectly (Auf der Maur herself admits the song was intended to be a knock-off of Kyuss's Blues For the Red Sun). Opening with Auf der Maur's ostentatious vocal howl, the song careens like a lumbering beast, with Homme's churning guitar riffs and Bjork's distinctive drumming style (thunderous, slow, heavy on the ride cymbal), as Auf der Maur displays great vocal range, singing a melody you'd usually hear from A Perfect Circle/Tool singer Maynard James Keenan. Current UK single "Real a Lie" has more of a metal-meets-shoegazer sound, with its chiming guitars that echo Lush, and is much more upbeat, as any pretentiousness is wiped away by a fantastic climax of bubblegum "do-do-do"'s. "Lightning is My Girl" roars out of the gate as Auf der Maur coos away in that sultry voice of hers, while "My Foggy Notion" and the fantastic "I Need I Want I Will" seem to bring a Middle Eastern element to their melodies. Meanwhile, the erotically charged "Taste You" and the lovely "Would if I Could" have more of a pop rock feel, resembling the best tracks on Celebrity Skin.

Unfortunately, Auf der Maur is far from perfect. The album simply runs too long, as songs like "I'll Be Anything You Want" and "Overpower Thee" are nothing more than dull, cabaret style filler, their Kurt Weill imitations contrasting too much from the rest of the album. Even more irritating are Auf der Maur's lyrics, which are often so juvenile, it's almost embarrassing, as she dares to sing such nauseating lines as, "Plug it in, so I can digest you/ I will taste you/ My appetite in that hole."

Still, despite the fact that the music gets a bit generic from time to time, and that she really has nothing very original to say, Auf der Maur is convincing enough to compel you to let a few missteps slide. With a very impressive lineup of guest musicians, including Eric Erlandson (Hole), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins/A Perfect Circle), John Stainer (Tomahawk), as well as former Tinker bandmate Steve Durand, Auf der Maur is a fine first album. The murky musical style, done to death as it has been, seems to fit Auf der Maur well, her entrancing voice contrasting nicely with the sludgy riffs. She might not garner the media attention that Ms. Love has been getting, but hearing this CD, you know she'll do just fine on her own.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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