When deciding whether to pick Velvet Revolver's debut CD, Contraband, off the music store rack, there is more to consider than the question of whether the music is any good. You're also faced with a color selection. Would you like black, red or white? Better yet, buy four copies -- one to listen to, and one of each color to put in lightproof, airtight plastic bags so that they can appreciate and be sold on whatever passes for eBay in 2034.
It's not every brand new rock band that gets this kind of attention from its record company's marketing think tank, but not every band has the kind of commercial pedigree that Velvet Revolver does. For those of you just tuning in, Velvet Revolver is an amalgamation of the former members of Guns N' Roses and former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland. BMG is counting heavily on them to get Very Big, hence the multicolored album covers and recent media blitz that saw the band profiled by such outlets as CNN and Newsweek.
Contraband is a pretty good record of unpretentious rock and roll that suffers from inevitable comparison with the best efforts of its parent bands. Fans of Gn'R or STP who buy Contraband in hopes of hearing a revival of those bands' sounds may be disappointed. Velvet Revolver's heritage is evident on most of the songs, perhaps most unmistakably on the first single, "Slither", but the album doesn't consistently deliver the kind of performance that grabs you by the ear and forcibly drags you in. Some of the songs on Contraband sound restrained, tentative, as though the band was trying to deny its own musical genetics and forge a new identity on the fly. Contraband is at its best when the band's players stop thinking about trying to sound different and just do what they've always done.
The rehabilitated, re-energized Weiland has been the focus of most of Velvet Revolver's buzz, but it's Slash whose exclamatory lead guitar tracks provide Contraband with a signature sound. Never a player who was content to showcase his skills during solos, he is omnipresent here, often using his instrument to fill roles normally occupied by backing vocals on tracks like "Superhuman" and "Loving the Alien". Fellow Guns alum Duff McKagan is also front and center, using his corpulent, slightly distorted bass sound to provide a lewd-sounding low end right from the beginning of "Sucker Train Blues", the album's opening track.
Weiland's voice has survived his bout with heroin addiction intact. Far from being a grunge anachronism, his angsty wail provides a suitably sober counterpoint to the more reckless style of his new bandmates. As one might expect, Weiland's lyrics are angry, weary and sound as though they were written by a much older man. "Since you've been gone / I've been alone here / I've grown old / Fell to pieces and I'm still falling," from "Fall to Pieces" is representative. He is authentic, if not always profound ("We're all slaves to a big machine," he observes on "Big Machine").
Authentic or not, Weiland has taken the stance, "Spare the F-bombs, spoil the album" on most of the songs, which are otherwise very radio-friendly and will probably find their way to your FM dial in a sanitized form (an edited version of Contraband is also available). "Set Me Free" and its squawky hook are here after appearing on last year's Hulk soundtrack. "Big Machine", "Fall to Pieces", and "You Got No Right" are strong candidates to follow "Slither" as singles.
Contraband improves with repeat listening, which is encouraging. "Supergroups" tend to be novelties with brief shelf lives, rarely lasting past their eponymously-titled debut albums, but Velvet Revolver sound less like an ego-driven supergroup than a collection of wily veterans who are starting over and sticking to the fundamentals. While not spectacular, this is a promising warm-up that should leave Velvet Revolver's inherited fan base eager to hear a second, more well oiled effort.