AEROSMITH: JUST PUSH PLAY (2001)
1) Beyond Beautiful; 2) Just Push Play; 3) Jaded; 4) Fly Away From Here; 5) Trip Hoppin'; 6) Sunshine; 7) Under My Skin; 8) Luv Lies; 9) Outta Your Head; 10) Drop Dead Gorgeous; 11) Light Inside; 12) Avant Garden.
When this came out, even some of the biggest fans of Get A Grip must have felt stumped. No matter how slick all of the band's albums from 1987 to 1993 turned out to be, they were at least nominally rock'n'roll — loud rhythmic headbanging music with distorted guitars, screaming, and, if not always fast, then at least always danceable grooves. Nine Lives was a mixed bag, but you still couldn't say no to the title track and 'Crash' and... well, much of it was boring and bland, yet somehow it was still «rock music».
But Just Push Play is not «rock music». About a third of it consists of so-so attempts at mimicking and mining the latest trends — most notably, the twenty-first century edition of hip-hop (on the title track and 'Outta Your Head', but, strangely, not on 'Trip Hoppin') and various electronica achievements (usually in the form of «spicy» sound effects scattered all over the place). The other two thirds, in dire contrast, are dedicated to some bizarre retro-psycho-pop thing that, at times, almost threatens to invoke nostalgia for the sunny Sixties — a place where Aerosmith, of all people, have never ever set foot before.
In all likelihood, the culprits are fellow songwriters Marti Frederiksen and Mark Hudson, present on all of the tracks (although not always together), and if Hudson's decision to steer the band towards a retro style comes as no surprise, given his previously mentioned successful restoration of Ringo Starr's solo career, Frederiksen is a darker sheep — although his first significant contribution is usually logged as writing and performing for Almost Famous' «Stillwater» — this might give you a clue if you are familiar with the movie.
Regardless, the simple fact is that Just Push Play is the most un-Aerosmith Aerosmith album ever recorded. It's not as unimaginable as AC/DC doing an album of Gilbert & Sullivan covers, perhaps, but close. A simple test involves playing the first ten seconds of 'Luv Lies' to any of your friends still in the dark — and then making them believe, prior to hearing Tyler's vocals come in, that this is not frickin' Electric Light Orchestra they are listening to.
It is no surprise, then, that in terms of overall respectability, the experiment had failed. It still hit the charts high enough, but, I believe, more due to inertia power — Aerosmith's «power run» of 1987-1993 has certainly ensured that, like with the Stones (who had their «power run» much earlier, of course, but it still affects public opinion), people will continue buying the records no matter what. But quite a few fans — as can be easily seen by browsing through amateur reviews — were quite unable to «get it», not the least of them Mr. Joe Perry himself, who has openly distanced himself from the album in press, saying that the final product had very little, if anything, to do with Aerosmith as a real band.
The most ridiculous thing about it all, however, is that Just Push Play is not at all bad! Once one has discarded the most obvious «ones for the kiddies», there are some interesting melodies and arrangements to be found. The big hit single 'Jaded' is a solid power pop anthem, a little on the pathetic side (these are the 'Amazing Crazy Crying' guys, after all), but with cute «astral» guitars, nostalgic strings and stuff — it may take a while to understand that the song has nothing serious to do with the generic Aerosmith power ballad, but it will sink in, eventually.
'Trip Hoppin', despite the title, has more to do with Beatlish pop of the Revolver era, only ear-splittingly overproduced. So does 'Sunshine' — with both songs featuring psychedelic backing vocals to boot, fresh off the 1966 train. Even 'Light Inside', rushing along at a far more frenetic pace than the rest, has «Beatles» written all over it; and 'Avant Garden', again with a totally misleading title, could have been a non-hit for Big Star, for all I know. There is also a drastic change in the lyrics — most are far less obnoxious and «mock-dirty» than we are used to.
Now how on earth did Hudson and Frederiksen drag the band in on this non-trivial project, made three times less trivial by being donated to Aerosmith, is something that will take only a very skilled biographer to figure out. Because the biggest weakness of Just Push Play is not the songs: it is just that the songs have just about the same relationship to the band to which they were entrusted as the real Marilyn Monroe has to her robot facsimile on the album sleeve.
What I mean is, out of all the band members Brad Whitford alone, with his old predilection towards «colourful» guitar playing, could have readily adapted to this kind of music. Joe Perry, wherever he is, looks like a fish out of water — when he does not even try to rock out, the resulting sound is boring, and when he does try, he just gets smacked in the face with the «poppiness» of the melody that he cannot subdue. And Tyler? Hard rock screamer, yes; R'n'B belter, perhaps; power ballad guru, by all means — but there is nothing he can do to make this new style, or these new styles, his own.
All of which makes Just Push Play an eccentric, unpredictable, and thoroughly misguided experience. It is not a «sellout» — they sold out for good fourteen years before the fact; it is, in fact, their least obviously commercial album in all that time. Rather, it's a pre-doomed experiment. It's their Satanic Majesties Request, in a way, but condemned by the epoch — in 1967, you could risk trying to make the Beatles out of the Rolling Stones and get something weird, but worthwhile in return. But to make the Beatles out of Aerosmith, long after the band has been dragged through the gloss, the big bucks, and the cheap, generic sleaze of its downfall — nah. And Hudson and Frederiksen should bear the blame, no doubt. "You're so jaded, and I'm the one that jaded you", indeed. Thumbs down, but with a certain dose of respect.