Friday, July 2, 2010

Concrete Blonde - Free

I’m not sure what the significance of the 20 years is, since Concrete Blonde were around more than twenty years ago and they broke up more recently than then, but the band recently regrouped and gave a worthy reunion gig according to a recent review.

Maybe it’s the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough-and only chart entry-Bloodletting, the album that features the song “Joey.”

But Bloodletting isn’t my favorite album by Concrete Blonde. Mine is the one before it-Free-the one that found them settling into a notable sound and a commitment to make an impact.

When I first started in radio, they put us in a small closet-sized studio and told us what to play. I thought it was strange how the records we could play were all confined to one simple row, meanwhile, the rest of the records in the studio were sitting in scattershot around the other shelves. They were carelessly categorized with a bunch of 12” singles and other promotional copies littering the full-length records.

There was another studio, which had a full wall of records-again, categorized without reason and locked up behind this thick vinyl curtain. I’m not sure why these records deserved special attention, to the point where they were separated from the albums in the main studio. But on a few occasions, the staff at the station from the daylight hours would forget to lock these curtains, and those of us who patrolled the airwaves during the 9 to midnight shift could see the secrets they contained.

One of those records was a promotional copy of Concrete Blonde’s “True” b/w “Still In Hollywood,” two songs from the band’s first album. I played both a bunch on my airshift, even though “Still In Hollywood” contained the line “He doesn’t give a fuck,” something that I’m sure the program director wouldn’t appreciate had they ever been listening.

Later on, I became the program director of that station, an event that occurred because I finally got tired of being told what to play on my airshift and not having any real records to cheat the playlist with. I began calling record labels during the day, asking for free records and promising to promote them in trade magazine playlists. I became friendly with many promotional people within the label, one of them being Lori Blumenthal from I.R.S. records-the same Lori Blumenthal that was later ridiculed by Green Day in the liner notes on one of their earlier albums.

I.R.S. sent me an advance copy of Concrete Blonde’s second album Free, a harder-edged released when compared to their debut. Its tougher sound is augmented with tight arrangements, giving singer Johnette Napolitano a newfound role as a hard rock vocalist on par with Ann Wilson or Chrissie Hynde. She sings with such authority that their cover of Thin Lizzy’s “It’s Only Money” takes on a new, fresh and sexy direction.

She builds compelling character studies during some of Free’s slower and quieter moments like “Happy Birthday” and “Scene Of A Perfect Crime.” Those moments also allow underrated guitarist Jim Mankey to shine, putting his distinctive tone front and center.

What makes Free such a success though is the harder number; none that are more memorable than the opener and minor hit “God Is A Bullet. It’s one of those songs that should have been the first track that made everyone aware of Concrete Blonde, but as the story panned out, they’d have to save their success for the ballad “Joey” from Bloodletting.

For me Free remains as the Concrete Blonde album that wonderfully displays the band's most enjoyable moment, and it also displays Johnette's growth as a vocalist and lyricist in a way that no other Concrete Blonde record has managed to do since.

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