One look at the jagged Joshua Tree arm reaching out into a furnace of arid desolation on the cover of Mojave, and it’s clear Johnette Napolitano has a new fascination: the desert. Napolitano is an artist that goes through phases, infusing each album with words and sounds reflecting her latest obsession. We have heard, in her 22-year career as lead singer of Concrete Blonde, Napolitano’s interests surface through distinct album motifs. Remember “Walking in London”‘s foggy British streets? Or how about “Mexican Moon”‘s Latin-American, Day of the Dead imagery and folklore? Mojave carries on this focused-but-not-concept-album tradition, and this time it is the world of life in a seemingly dead desert that Napolitano carries us away to.
There is no mistaking the distorted bass riff of opening track “The ‘A’ Road”. Johnette Napolitano, in classic form, grinds out aggressive, yet melodious, low-end riffs. She has always drawn praise for her throaty vocal power, but Napolitano’s secret weapon is actually her bass playing. While the listener is (justifiably) preoccupied with her powerful, guttural vocals, she sneaks up on you slowly and drops bass lines so thick, the air around the speakers is almost visible. As Concrete Blonde has been greatly underappreciated throughout the years as a band, the individual members have also been greatly underrated as musicians. Napolitano’s bass playing should have earned her many more bass guitar magazine covers; Jim Mankey’s compelling guitar work, similarly, should have garnered much more recognition from critics and peers alike.
In “True to This”, the refrain of “Life is a lonely lesson” at song’s end emphasizes the meaning behind Napolitano’s earlier lyrics of “I gave away my velvet dress, my high-heeled shoes / And I couldn’t care less / I’m through with this”. Reflecting a life of less material possessions and a greater connection to the natural world, Napolitano’s move to the Southern California desert has clearly affected her profoundly. As her repeated use of the phrase “Shed your skin” would indicate, Napolitano has seemingly completed a metamorphosis, exchanging wandering in the shadows of city streetlights for wandering in the shadows of moon-silhouetted Joshua Trees. Mojave is the journal of a newborn desert dweller, intently watching and contemplating her new surroundings. Through Napolitano’s almost surreal knack for imagery and mood-setting, the listener ends up swirling through her thoughts in what, at times, nears a Peyote-like state.
There is a strong spoken word element in Mojave. The title track is a long, insightful story of watching the seeming barrenness of the desert landscape. But as Napolitano gains momentum in “Mojave”, the blank landscape springs to life with desert roamers, both animal and human. “I saw you come and pass and go and you never saw me”, she says with the defiance of a native of her adopted desert. She is so convincing in her passion and ease with describing, hiding in, and finding life in the desert, that Napolitano seems to be channeling an old Native American spirit. It’s hard to say if this transformation is conscious, or if Napolitano, living up to her supernatural image, really does talk to desert ghosts of days past.
The old west classic “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” is a natural cover tune to appear on Mojave. Supernatural visuals are a Concrete Blonde staple, and “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” fits well into the list — “Your Haunted Head”, “(Bloodletting) The Vampire Song”, “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man”, “Walking in London”– of otherworldly tunes.
The only sour note on the album is “Jim Needs an Animal”. It comes off as some sort of “band members only” inside joke. Maybe guitarist Jim Mankey, the song’s subject, dared Napolitano to put it on the album. Whatever the case, it’s not really funny or cute to anyone not in on the joke. And given the strength of the rest of the album, the hackneyed “Jim Needs An Animal” is that much more glaring. But fortunately, this is the only miss on the album.
What Mojave succeeds in is giving us a glimpse into the mysterious world of the desert. Johnette Napolitano has always infused her music with a sense of mystery, a sense of the unknown, and Mojave is no exception. It’s hard to believe that it has been two decades since Concrete Blonde first released an album, but time has been a friend to them, unlike the majority of bands moving into their second decade of existence. Napolitano may have changed residences and shifted her cultural interests some, but she has remained true to what makes Concrete Blonde work. And that is all anyone could ask for from one of modern rock’s finest bands.