AEROSMITH: HONKIN' ON BOBO (2004)
1) Road Runner; 2) Shame, Shame, Shame; 3) Eyesight To The Blind; 4) Baby, Please Don't Go; 5) Never Loved A Girl; 6) Back Back Train; 7) You Gotta Move; 8) The Grind; 9) I'm Ready; 10) Temperature; 11) Stop Messin' Around; 12) Jesus Is On The Main Line.
Most bands, sooner or later, experience the back-to-roots drive — because, once you've got nothing left to prove, the only thing left is to realize just how much the grass was greener back in the days when you did have something to prove, and still greener even before those days. With Aerosmith, though, who were never all that attached to their roots in the first place, and whose proverbial sellout made everyone see they weren't even all that attached to the stems, everything was possible — including the preposterous thought of «Hey, maybe these guys have lost themselves so hopelessly in the world of Top 10 hits, Vegas galas, and safe, sterile sex with MTV teenage whores, they will never release their back-to-roots album?»
But perhaps the disgust that Joe Perry had to live out every night upon the release of Just Push Play, an album not horrible in itself but farther from the spirit of Aerosmith than anything ever associated with the band, had served as a catalyst — and here, three years after Aerosmith tried to become Lenny Kravitz & The Beatles, is Aerosmith trying to become The Chess Blues Singers. Or, rather, Kid Rock & The Chess Blues Singers.
Honkin' On Bobo has been usually billed as their «blues covers» album, but Aerosmith are not, nor have they ever been, a blues band; they probably did just one or two pure blues numbers in their entire career, usually to fill up some empty record space at the last moment (remember 'Reefer Head Woman'? No? That's what I thought). But if you speed up and toughen the blues, you get rock'n'roll, and this is what they try to remind us of by covering Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Mississippi Fred McDowell not the way those guys sang their songs, but the way other guys, less tolerant of the blues' monotonousness and semi-religious infatuation with itself, sang them. Loud, fast (if possible), dirty, sleazy — the way slum kids like it the best.
If this does not work exactly the way it should, this is because it can't. The 'Smiths have been removed from this territory way too long to be able to meet anyone along the way who'd tell them how to do it right. Granted, they even went back to their old producer Jack Douglas for an extra pinch of authenticity. For brass, they used the Memphis Horns. On piano, they recruited the legendary Chuck Berry accompanist Johnnie Johnson (lucky to catch a bit of the good old spirit in him before he died next year). So many pieces in place, and yet the final product still sounds fairly calculated and surviving somewhat on artificial breath.
Perhaps the discrepancy is in that Honkin' On Bobo might have originally been conceived as a semi-improvised, good-time jam-party record, but then Douglas went on to make it sound like an Aerosmith album, with emphasis on the second word. I do not care much for the production; it still bears the patented late-Aerosmith post-1987 gloss, and as loud and roaring as the guitars are, welcoming you to the hard rock of 'Road Runner', they just don't kick ass the way they used to. Still, if it's the best we can get, better 'Road Runner' than 'Eat The Rich', I'd say.
This whole idea of «Let's have fun fun fun, but let's also sell this thing to the kids who want another Permanent Vacation» sort of ruins the experience. An Aerosmith album for the kids has to have power ballads, right? And there ain't no such thing as a blues power ballad, right? So they take Aretha Franklin's 'I Never Loved A Man', change the title and the lyrics, and make it into the next 'Crazy'. Not good.
Nevertheless, shoot the legs off the context and 'Road Runner', 'Baby Please Don't Go', 'I'm Ready', and 'You Gotta Move' rock out well without any back thought (the latter even mutates into some sort of psychedeliv heavy metal monster midway through; thankfully, Mississippi Fred missed hearing it by a good thirty years). Backup vocalist Tracy Bonham (no relation to John) does a good job helping Perry out with the singing on the swampy 'Back Back Train', and the way they all wind it down with an acoustic gospel sing-along ('Jesus Is On The Main Line') is truly heartwarming. Maybe they should have done it all unplugged.
Or maybe not. It's been a long time, after all, since those of us that drew a sharp line between 'Rats In The Cellar' and 'Monkey On My Back' got the occasion to rock'n'roll to a 'Smith tune without a vague fear of breaking some unwritten code of honour. So, even if Joe Perry has not invented any new riffs and Tyler still uses each song as an opportunity to practice his animal scream (what a scream, though, especially for a guy in his fifties), it's all decent shit. Certainly better to go out this-a way. Thumbs up.