The Stone Roses (1989) ***
The quintessential overhyped U.K. debut, on first (and third, fourth, even fifth….your mileage may vary) listen comes across as a wave of undistinguished and indistinguishable sonic mush. The hooks are as rotely generic as the sing-song post-Hollies melodies; what distinguishes this mish-mash of generic Brit-pop from Biff Bang Pow or the Primitives or Felt or a hundred other retro-‘60s British bands jingling and jangling their tambourines across that fair isle in the ‘80s, I fail to discern. However, as is sometimes the case, repeated listens reveal this album's minor merits and I can even begin to distinguish one track from another. Which is problem numero uno: the band has its formula and sticks to it (excepting those dreary pseudo-funk excursions toward the end), making this one hella monotonous long-player. And long-player it is: the band’s slight tunes would work dandy as 2 1/2 minute bubblegum ditties, but are pompously bloated with misguided self-importance to an average running length of 5 minutes each. Excepting the one minute fragment “Elizabeth My Dear", which merely sets the traditional folk melody of “Scarborough Fair” to a new set of lyrics advocating regicide. It’s pleasant enough and a nice break from the monotony. The other two exceptions are “I am the Resurrection” (yes, the lyric is ludicrously self-deluded, and like a snotty, clueless kid brother to U2, they’re bleeding serious) a fine 3 1/2 pop anthem that shifts into a garage-funk jam for the remaining 5 minutes; and the even more tedious “Fools Gold” which overabuses its one hook – an overflanged Shaft wah-wah funk-guitar riff – repetitively for ten minutes. There’s a fine line between groovy hypnosis and a mindless rut of groove, and this clearly falls into “Sister Ray” territory. That this sort of thing was considered a groundbreaking dance track speaks of how desperate U.K. music journalists were for passable grooves performed by pale skinny English lads.
The band are technically accomplished and even interesting players (you knew I’d get to the positives eventually, given my lukewarm grade – it’s not at all a bad album, merely an innocuous and a bit boring of one). John Squire gets a lot of press for his chiming guitar licks, so enough about that Johnny Marr acolyte; the real secret weapon is bassist Mani – he’s fluid and meaty at the same time, carrying the weight and foundation of the tunes more often than not (if you bother to notice; like a lot of bass players, he can be easy to overlook in the mix). Would have made for a great rhythm section if the drummer was up to snuff, but the beats, while facile and painterly, are too lightweightly applied to achieve rhythmic propulsion and liftoff. The mix is simply too thin, way too thin – this album could sorely use some oomph, power, and sonic depth to ,it; maybe they were going for a dreamy, fluffy-as-clouds affect, but it’s all too amorphous and gormless. Ian Brown is the other weak link; he achieves an admirably angelic-snotty choirboy vox, but displays a distressing lack of range, which in the end results in the band fronted by a bland, colorless singer. Brown lacks all charisma, a crucial ingredient for any frontman. Plus, he looks like a monkey.
Which isn’t to say that pseudo-gothy, bass-driven opener “I Wanna Be Adored” isn’t a fantastic tune, containing Brown’s most arresting lyric: “I don’t need to sell my soul / He’s already in me”. Or that “She Bangs the Drums” and “Bye Bye Badman” don’t boast quite catchy choruses. Or that running “Waterfall” backwards and rewriting it as “Don’t Stop” isn’t a cute neo-psychedelic trick. Or that “Made of Stone” burns with desolate intensity as my favorite track. The band did have tunes, you must admit. Did their small clutch of winsome tunes warrant the hubris and hype? I’ve already answered that question.