On the face of it, Bloodletting,
the third album from on-again/off-again L.A.
combo Concrete Blonde, doesn’t seem like the kind of record that could find
even a fraction of a mass audience. Singer/songwriter Johnette Napolitano has a
rough, drama-ridden voice at odds with the saccharine trilling usually favored
by the madding crowd, and her libretto doesn’t just flirt with darkness – it
shove its tongue down its throat and drags it to the altar. Guitarist James
Mankey gives his ax a knife-edge tone that could flay skin, hiding his melodic
instincts under razor wire. While the songs never fail to be melodic, even at
their most rocking they’re shrouded in a tattered black lace shawl and
cigarette burns. Yet, somehow, “Joey” – a catchy but desultory ballad about a
hopeless affair with an alcoholic – struck a universal chord, becoming a top 40
hit that still sounds great on the radio today.
But “Joey” isn’t the only tarnished gem in this rusty crown.
“Caroline” attempts to sooth its hapless heroine with a beguiling minor key
chorus melody, while the gorgeous “Darkening of the Light” weaves its
melancholy spell with guest Peter Buck’s mandolin. “The Sky is a Poisonous Garden” rocks its modern-day Romeo and
Juliet with an anthemic, punky chorus, as “I Don’t Need a Hero” gently takes
note of its doomed couple’s codependence. “The Beast” compares love to “the
killer you thought was your friend,” accompanied by fierce hard rock, while the
Anne Rice tribute of the title track epitomizes gothic metal before the genre
ever had a name. “Tomorrow, Wendy” – written by then-Wall of Voodoo frontman
Andy Prieboy – tells its tale of a dying AIDS patient with just the right touch
of mournful drama, coming close to the top but not quite climbing over.
The remaster – billed as the 20th anniversary
edition, even though it’s a year late – comes not only with sparkling sound,
but also a half-dozen bonus tracks. A melodramatic take on Jimi Hendrix’s
“Little Wing,” a live cut of “Roses Grow” (which goes from bizarre to silly)
and an even more metallic, French-language version of “Bloodletting” hardly
qualify as essential. But the live “The Sky is a Poisonous Garden”
slashes and burns, the “Joey” B-side “I Want You” pops and the in-concert
“Tomorrow, Wendy” rearranges the original into an angry singalong.
Ultimately it’s the original music that gives the album its
staying power. Falling into a neverwhere between gothic obsession and alt.rock
accessibility, the band staked a claim to its own sound and somehow took it, if
only briefly, into the heartland of mainstream music. There are few bands about
which one claim that success came on its members’ own terms. But Concrete Blonde
stands up to that claim with Bloodletting.
“Caroline,” “Darkening of the Light” MICHAEL TOLAND