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Is it time for ’90s nostalgia already? “Jaded,” the first single from Just Push Play, Aerosmith’s fifth post-rehab studio disc (its 13th overall), would certainly make you think so. A letter-perfect, circa-1996 radio-rock song, the track is anchored by Joe Perry’s approximation of a Billy Corgan guitar riff in all its stuttering, alterna-angst glory. For his part, vocalist, bon vivant, and sometime Gap spokesperson Steven Tyler unleashes his strongest performance since the band’s dusty heyday some 25 years ago. Set to a hypnotic but scattershot rhythm, “Jaded” finds Perry rediscovering the wonders of tremolo while Tyler serves up a surprisingly moody lyric worthy of Gen-X icon Eddie Vedder: “Hey jaded/In all its misery/It will always be what I loved/And hated.” When the song’s over-the-top anthem of a chorus kicks in, you may be convinced that the band has ushered in post-alternative classic rock, a hybrid form that checks its epic sweep with a grunge-worthy whineand gives Aerosmith a good reason to exist 31 years after its inception.
But that’s not the case, unfortunately. “Jaded” is the only genuinely sublime track on an album that mostly showcases the group’s awkward embrace of the last decade’s various alt-rock models. The smattering of one-dimensional rap-metal tracks on Just Push Play isn’t so disturbingAerosmith, after all, can take a substantial share of both the credit and the blame for that genre. It’s the band’s ill-advised foray into (I guess you could call
it) rocktronica that’s truly upsetting. Like ZZ Top, which lurched toward synth-pop in the early to mid-’80s, Aerosmith seems to be craving contemporary pop relevancenot to mention some face time with Carson Daly on the set of TRL. But will the little girls and boys understand? For that matter, will Carson?
My guess is no. Whereas ZZ Top infused its percolating, post-Devo AOR with considerable low-key charm and enough MTV savvy to make Fred Durst look like a rank amateur (which he is), Aerosmith has never done anything low-key. Not the drugs, not the rehab, and certainly not this stylistic wrong move. Although no one should discount Aerosmith’s considerable powers of creating bankable stylistic syntheses (“Walk This Way” has now been both hiphopped and bubblegummed; could a Celine Dion version be far behind?), three decades in, this crusty group of careerist geezers seems unlikely to resuscitate capital-A Alternative, at least not with this record of gimmicky sonic retreads. It’s downright depressing.
Ironically, though, the disc itself is weirdly perky, as if the band has traded in the cocaine rush that fueled earlier inferior products (such as the knowingly titled Draw the Line or the even more knowingly titled Night in the Ruts) for a collective Viagra buzz. The LP’s opener, “Beyond Beautiful,” establishes the metronomelike cadence that ticks like an impatient clock under the entire record. Nodding toward both ’60s psychedelia and ’90s rap-metal, the track features a scratchy, shouted verse and a brain-dead, trance-inducing chorus that’s pure post-rehab Aerosmith: anthemic, high-gloss, and instantly, utterly forgettable. The major-league blues-rock guitar of Perry and his trusty sidekick, Brad Whitford, very nearly saves the day, but, unfortunately, the guitars are mostly obscured by the track’s relentless Cro-Magnon beat. Led Zeppelin-esque but also Def Leppard-esque, that beat will surely bring out the irritated track-jumper in you.
But on Just Push Play, there’s really nowhere to go. The title track, for instance, finds Tyler rapping unconvincingly in the style of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” the maniacal lock-step rhythm working against the supple funk the band so obviously wants to play. Even worse, the track opens with Tyler trying out a goofy vocal effect similar to the one Cher used for her own recent attempt at stylistic relevance, “Believe.” “She gave you a flower/The one that God gave her,” he chants amid the song’s snarling guitars and turntable scratching (!), delivering a couplet that doesn’t even cut it as a single entendre. Later in the song, Tyler namechecks “Walk This Way,” invoking the title as if it were a talisman to ward off complaints about his band’s belated arrival at the trend-spotting party.
But, like most of Just Push Play, the move is ineffectual. “Outta Your Head,” the album’s other relatively straightforward rap effort, laces Tyler’s staccato vocal attack through an inspired “Kashmir”-like groove, familiar terrain for a group that rose to the top of the hard-rock heap during the genre’s ’70s golden age. And except that Tyler’s rap shares rhythmic DNA with the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” the track is pretty good, with Perry stealing the show through tricky, tossed-off guitar fills that alternately conjure Jimi Hendrix and the Ventures. Throughout the disc, Perry fares much better than his vocalizing cohort, adapting the studio trickery the band currently favors to his signature riff-heavy sound rather than slathering the effects on gratuitously. Tyler, on the other hand, relies on cutesy vocal effects and so much multitracking that he occasionally sounds like a jet preparing for takeoff.
Back in its glory years, Aerosmith cranked out a series of full-bodied, elemental classics”Walk This Way,” “Dream On,” and the still-amazing “Sweet Emotion”songs that, ironically enough, distilled everything noxious about ’70s rock excess into compact and nearly perfect hit singles. But that kind of sonic magic is MIA on Just Push Play, possibly because the band is simply trying too hard. On many songs, the group sounds stressed outwhich isn’t the way it’s supposed to be on an Aerosmith record. Enervated and hung over, maybe, but stressed out? Never. Who ever thought that the members of Aerosmith would turn out to be some of rock’s hardest working professionals? Who ever wanted them to be?
Aerosmith used to be everyone’s favorite dysfunctional rock band; now, the group is so functional it’s boring. CP