Album: Jane's Addiction, "The Great Escape Artist" (Capitol)
Don't be fooled by the eight years between albums: like the green-kissed rebirth dance of spring eternal, or the stubborn persistence of bathroom tile mold, the three or four stalwart sailors who man the Good Ship Jane's Addiction never really lower the flag completely. They just wait.
Fans by now have become used to the band's infrequently regular reunion/recording/touring cycles, which have included almost half a dozen tours over the last 15 years, but only one album of new material. What they might not have been expecting is an album that sounds as coherent and contemporary as "The Great Escape Artist."
Plugging first former Guns N' Roses bass slinger Duff McKagan and then TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek into the bass slot vacated by departed founding member Eric Avery (who quit the band for the second time last year), the band summons itself into existence with a bellow -- "I'll never give up the underground," Farrell vows on the pulse-pounding opener, "Underground," which finds the singer in an almost restrained pitch. Guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins are also on an even keel on the opening track -- a trend that will carry through much of the record -- before Navarro rips off a classic fret-burning run late in the tune.
The album's first single, "End to the Lies," showed up back in April as a free download from the band's website, and retains its charms the second time around, casting a swirling maelstrom of sound around the curiously (and impressively) grounded Farrell. "You never change like they say," he offers in that oddly effective middle range, "you only become more like yourself."
Although the set's first two songs don't offer much in the way of growth beyond a moderately updated take on the classic Jane's sound, it's "Curiosity Kills" where the group begins to fully emerge into the light of 2011, revealing a slick modern sheen that retains the heart of the band's groove while almost moving it forward into a place of relevance. "Irresistible Force" also reaches for an updated sound but is weighed down by an unexciting chorus and lack of energy.
The rollicking, winsome "I'll Hit You Back" should have been the first single. It's merely "Been Caught Stealing" for a depleted age, sure, but the catchy chorus and insistent rock-o-matic beat (Navarro's chiming ten-second solo near the end flashes like the diamond handgrip of a concealed weapon -- it's just there to let you know he could do a lot worse to you) would be highlights on any Jane's record.
Elsewhere, "Twisted Tales" goes on a bit too long and suffers from flatness. "Ultimate Reason" doesn't sound like a Jane's Addiction song at all -- a listener might be alarmed that a Foo Fighters album slipped on by mistake at first.
But by "Splash a Little Water On It" we're back in Perryland for a grinding slog uphill in the rain. It's not quite "Three Days" -- nobody in this band (well, maybe Navarro) really has his heart in ten-minute songs about 72-hour-long threeways anymore-- but the measured culmination of the song's long, slow buildup reveals a lot about the maturity and experience that this crew has now. You're waiting for the spastic freakout, clanging and crashing and screaming, that never comes, but you realize at the end that you can do without it. It "ran a risk of being a 'lighters in the air' kind of song and now it's a 'lighter app in the air' kind of song," Navarro told an interviewer recently, and that about covers it.
But don't forget that this is still Jane's Freaking Addiction. Check "Words Right Out of My Mouth" if you don't believe it. For the first time Farrell is yelping in high register, the band is turning the amps up to eleven, and the foundations are beginning to shake. But even here the tilt is measured, coolly demonstrative rather than sneering and dismissive, almost elegantly in keeping with the overall theme of the album, which appears to be "old dogs learning new tricks."
This isn't 2003's "Strays," which featured a couple of decent songs amid a half hour of filler; "The Great Escape Artist" is the first completely listenable album, cover to cover, from Jane's Addiction in more than 20 years. And they didn't even have to give up the underground to make it.