One of many promises made by Velvet Revolver (three parts Guns N’ Roses, one part Stone Temple Pilots, and that guy from the hardcore punk band) regarding their new disc was that they were stepping away from the spontaneous, sleazy hard-rock of their first outing and were aiming for something of a ‘dancier’ premise.
With the arrival of Libertad, such evolution may not, at first, be apparent. It appears at casual glance nothing more than a more refined re-run of 2004’s Contraband, with a greater contrast between the balls-out rocking and the sensitive love letters about falling to pieces. But the hint of a radio-friendly electro vibe through every odd moment is really the most significant progress made by the band in roughly three years; light-weight guitars made to sound like synthesizers bounce around the walls of tracks like the lean “She Mine”. Even first single “She Builds Quick Machines” succumbs to a dance-y, upbeat meter, entirely free of angst, while the percussion soaks in excesses of cymbals, cowbells, shakers, and whatever else drummer Matt Sorum can get his hands on while keeping the rhythm’s insistent drill.
Contrary to what its title may imply (after all, it means freedom in Spanish), and unlike the recent Smashing Pumpkins album Zeitgeist, Libertad is not a work that criticizes the Bush administration or the war. Velvet Revolver is keen to give the impression that their priorities (their core, in fact) is still straight-ahead hedonism, and Libertad works to the effect of giving us a break from ‘political music’ and transporting us to the land of fancy.
To do this, they essentially glam and beef up their chords, keep the smoky harmonies singer Scott Weiland excelled at on Contraband, and give him the opportunity to spit out old clichés, much older than the group’s ’90s origins. According to him, pills are to be popped like candy (“She Mine”), girls who are “freaks” and are “something that they’re not” should be “kicked out the door” (“Get Out the Door”), or, if all else fails, you can just proclaim “Let it roll!” like the self-indulgent front-man of a rock supergroup. This is exactly what they do in the opening track, falling back on a Purple-era Stone Temple Pilots replica with a hunk of middle-finger attitude (producer Brendan O’Brien’s contribution to the proceedings). They’re rockstar revivalists, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of spirit for the cause of a good album.
Then again, it is saying something when a cover is the most memorable song on said album. The Electric Light Orchestra’s power-fluff “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” is given a heavy-handed work-over, replacing the pianos and MIDI strings with power chords and the multi-layered vocals with a sighing overdub by Weiland. Yet somehow, their take has a natural dignity and forward motion to it, almost as if it’s the embodiment of the group’s rock ‘n’ roll classicism.
“Can’t Get it Out of My Head” remains a pleasant surprise late in the disc, as the other ballads are such sterile, radio-happy affairs, as to be dead-on-arrival. “The Last Fight” is a docile, Southern-flavored collection of memories, sung in Weiland’s best ‘clean’ voice, and thus a highly suspicious candidate for a rewrite of Nickelback’s “Photograph”. “She Builds Quick Machines” is a disappointedly rote rock song, which gets even worse when the bottom drops out into an embarrassingly earnest midsection, during which Weiland professes he “bleeds for us” a la Michael Stipe. He also promises “I’ll smash right through your spotlight” in the track’s unfortunate hook: that line being significant only for the reason that the band doesn’t seem to have the power to create one of their own. Even the closing tune has to be mellow — “Gravedancer” swims uncomfortably in a spacey wah-wah pedal effect which gives way to a hidden track (“Don’t Drop that Dime”), which turns out to be another flirtation with country rock.
On the other hand, the band has never been more raucous than they are on “Mary Mary”, a cut full of tenacious guitar zaps and bold bass lines, or “Spay”, an unmistakably Nirvana-esque blast, or “Just Sixteen”, a fiery four minutes with real zest. But if these are Libertad’s slick, rallying calls to party, they still can’t match the fast-paced tension of “Slither” or “Sucker Train Blues”.
Meaning that, for all Velvet Revolver’s devotion to the pursuit of good times, and upgrading their music into something with a vibe, they’re clinging to their hooks like glue on their sophomore effort. And they are quite willing to interrupt whatever’s going on for the sake of busting out a chorus, making “American Man”, “Pills, Demons & Etc.” and “For A Brother” ultimately unremarkable. Not that it matters much; most of the riffs are blunt and forgettable, and Slash, while undeniably still a talented axe-grinder, seems to spin a solo only when a song needs the fill.
Some have hailed Libertad as the ‘coming of age’ project for Velvet Revolver, where both parties click with each other and start to make the music that fits them as a unit. It’s no such step forward — everything new is simply an amplified version of what came before, to little avail. Libertad is much more like Audioslave’s second record, Out of Exile: it shows the unbelievably low flair a supergroup can have, and how bland they can play, but finds them playing together anyway. The original fire is dead and gone.