Johnette Napolitano has a great voice. Maybe not the kind of voice that would have eventually found its way to Broadway — instead of screaming Concrete Blonde’s self-titled debut over noisy crowds in small clubs back in the mid-80s — but her distinctive pipes possess that rare emotional trait that cannot be obtained through strategic marketing, voice coach, or spiritual advisor. It is a Herculean quality of the voice, and she is up there with Nina, Stevie, and Whitney in this regard. On this new Concrete Blonde compilation, you hear it first during “Turn”. “Turn” is from the group’s debut, and it is a fantastic yet still embryonic blueprint, one this Hollywood outfit would steadily improve upon throughout their eight-year career.
With 1990’s Bloodletting, that blueprint finally came to bloom. This is arguably the group’s finest record, and it spawned their first and only Top 20 hit, “Joey”. Bloodletting’s first single, “Caroline”, and “Tomorrow, Wendy”, were also plucked for this compilation and all three tracks are equally strong, with Napolitano employing rich, understated verses and then wailing on the choruses. Like most of what is on The Essential, these are finely constructed and deeply moving songs. It’s too bad that the majority of Concrete Blonde’s output was lost through thin college dormitory walls.
Following the success of “Joey” — and remember this is before the R.E.M. “Losing My Religion” madness one year later — Concrete Blonde grabbed a support slot with Sting. It was quite appropriate considering that “Joey” had a musical resemblance to “Every Breath You Take” and was beginning to break out of the gate like that song had eight years earlier. Certainly not in scope, but “Joey” sounded great on the radio, and showed on its own terms how the insularity of alternative rock could be shared with the masses.
Before you start feeling as though you are reading the liners for this record and not a review of it, let me just say that I have never been that big a fan of Concrete Blonde. There are a few songs, given their time period and state of origin, that sound like something approaching funk (or worse, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan), and some of these guitar solos are overwrought like a Richard Marx power ballad (think very clean lines and a little whammy bar). But all said, just a couple of dated misfires are sprinkled alongside gems like “Dance Along the Edge”, “Happy Birthday”, and the Pretenders-like “Someday?” Indeed, Concrete Blonde is much better soulful than when they are playful.
Oddly, this compilation, which runs chronologically from 1986 to 1992, leaves off the group’s last full length, 1993’s Mexican Moon, their last before they called it quits and the original slew of compilations came forth, including a B-sides compilation and Greatest Hits (there would be yet another greatest hits in 2002, the year the group got back together).
Even odder is padding this compilation with two B-sides from the “Caroline” single and calling this Essential. I like Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, and the live version of “Roses Grow” shakes things up a little bit, but it’s missing about a track or two from the band’s post-Bloodletting career.
All in all, consider it a very good, if flawed overview of these cult darlings.