Just when, exactly, did Aerosmith become safe?
It wasn't so long ago that the venerable quintet was seen as a spiritual forebear to such bad-boy rockers as Guns N' Roses. Before that, the band had such a reputation for high times and substance abuse that singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry were dubbed "the Toxic Twins." Even in its youth, the group's raunchy sound and lust for double entendres suggested nothing so much as a scruffier version of the Rolling Stones.
Back then, Aerosmith looked about as easy to domesticate as a jungle cat. Even so, "Nine Lives" (Columbia 67547, arriving in stores today) is no feral roar. If anything, it comes across like a contented purr, as the band rubs against the listener's leg like an old tom cat hoping to be fed.
That's not to say the album is a disappointment, or that Aerosmith has gone mellow on us. Despite a heavier-than-usual use of strings, horns and lush, Beatlesque production effects, the band's sound hasn't been declawed. There's still enough squalling guitar and pumped-up riffs to assure old fans that age cannot wither (nor custom stale) the infinite variations on Aerosmith's sound.
Still, a lot has changed in the world since Aerosmith made its debut some 25 years ago. Where once the band lived on the edge, now it occupies the middle of the road, and while that doesn't affect the actual sound of the music, it dramatically alters the way we perceive it.
For instance, what stands out about "Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)" isn't the ferocity of the band's performance, but the ingenuity of the lyric and the polish of the arrangement. That the song is awesomely catchy is no accident -- hardly a note is played that isn't tied to some kind of hook, as the horns, guitars, bass and keyboards provide layer after layer of interlocking melody. It's almost a textbook case of how melodic reinforcement can help sell a song.
Nor is that the only example here. As much as "Attitude Adjustment" may feel like a classic Aerosmith boogie, its sound bespeaks considerable care and craft, as each little guitar lick has an important part in the overall melodic structure. Likewise, the acoustical chaos strewn through "Something's Gotta Give" invariably ends up supporting the song's central riff, while "Full Circle" manages to make even its capering 6/8 pulse come across as just another layer of hook.
There's no question that this devotion to craft pays off -- "Nine Lives" is easily the band's catchiest album to date -- but it also has the unexpected effect of moving Aerosmith out of the rock arena. These days, what we expect from rockers is passion, intensity, and a certain amount of devil-may-care sloppiness: think of Bush, the Offspring, Silverchair, even Neil Young. The kind of care and focus Aerosmith poured into this project isn't often found in rock these days; if it turns up anywhere, it's modern Nashville.
In a weird way, there is a certain amount of the Nashville sensibility to "Nine Lives." Maybe not in the sound -- there's no twang to Tyler's vocals, and no pedal steel in among the guitars -- but definitely in the lyrics. After all, country is certainly capable of titles as punny as "Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)" or "Kiss Your Past Goodbye." (Though to be fair, some of what turns up on the lyrics sheet is rather raunchier than the usual Music Row fare.)
If the album's wordplay occasionally evokes Nashville, the music itself more often suggests the Beatles. That's quite clearly the case with "The Farm," where the chugging cellos and odd sound effects may as well be on direct loan from "I Am the Walrus," but there's also a distinctly Beatlesque cast to the exotic instrumentation in "Taste of India," even if its heavy guitars and throbbing rhythm seem to have more in common with Led Zeppelin's ventures east.
All told, the tack Aerosmith has taken this time out is wide-ranging, eclectic and relentlessly tuneful -- a perfect pop approach, in other words. That may have cost the band its edge, but if Aerosmith's hook-heavy rock snares as many listeners as it ought to, the band may prove to have even more than nine lives.
To hear excerpts from Aerosmith's new release, "Nine Lives," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6108. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 3/18/97