Earle and Jim Mankey were, respectively, the original guitarist and bassist in Halfnelson/Sparks. When the band’s other pair of brothers left for England without them, Earle wasted no time in becoming a well-known record producer. It took Jim a lot longer to re-enter the spotlight, but Concrete Blonde proved, at least commercially, to be worth the wait.
Jim’s collaboration with singer/bassist Johnette Napolitano began in Dream 6, whose six-song 12-inch EP (co-produced by Earle) is an intriguing, unassuming item. Using the same organizational chart as the Police, Dream 6 draws on various styles, offering little personality besides the vocals, which are plain but pleasant.
Replacing drummer Micheal Murphy with Harry Rushakoff, Dream 6 signed to IRS and became Concrete Blonde (name provided by new labelmate Michael Stipe), releasing a terrible album that sounds like half-finished demos no one with ears would give a second listen. Napolitano’s untrained voice is remarkably unattractive (especially when she tries too hard to ape Chrissie Hynde); the guitar work (Mankey and Napolitano) imitates everyone from Mark Knopfler to Andy Summers on duff songs that thrust along with neither focus nor flair. Even George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” is left for dead in a pointless cover version.
Expanding to a quartet, Concrete Blonde — well on its way to becoming Napolitano’s showcase — made the better-sounding Free, a loud, textured rock record with clunky drumming and occasionally overzealous singing. The weak material seems to spring from a late-’60s ex-hippie sensibility, an impression that isn’t discouraged by the Phil Lynott cover (“It’s Only Money”), the 1970 Leon Russell quote reproduced on the inner sleeve or the run- off grooves’ yippie exhortations. The two songs that stand out are the sweet and catchy “Happy Birthday” and the grave stylistic miscalculation of “Roses Grow,” a bizarre, inept stab at rap.
In Concrete Blonde’s third incarnation, Napolitano (taking sole songwriting credit and putting down her guitar) and Mankey were joined by ex-Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson. Erstwhile metal producer Chris Tsangarides makes a tentative attempt to move the trio towards the mainstream on Bloodletting, roughing/punching up the sound a bit, adding instrumental and theatrical vocal layers without appreciably raising the band’s volume. But the songs — other than those inspired by Anne Rice’s fiction, almost all about a failed relationship — haven’t got the melodic content to hold the charge. The closest the record comes to Top 40 power is “Joey,” a Heart-like ballad to an addict that rewrites “Love Hurts” with some really heinous lyrics (“And if you’re somewhere out there / Passed out on the floor / Oh Joey, I’m not angry anymore”).
Rushakoff returned for Walking in London, a record that consolidates witchy-woman Napolitano’s metaphysical obsessions and dubious feminism. With Tsangarides helping organize a restrained environment of stylish atmosphe-rock (and Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson playing “additional bass”), Napolitano’s blustery singing and why-wouldn’t-they-like-it? songwriting are the only intemperate elements left (as if anything else mattered). “Ghost of a Texas Ladies’ Man,” the multilingual “Les Coeurs Jumeaux” and “City Screaming” are ridiculous inventions; another bout of the hip-hops (“I Wanna Be Your Friend Again”) is dismal. And “Woman to Woman” is about competition, not solidarity. Covering James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is unfortunately typical of the dim-bulb invention and imagination on which this band appears to function.
Musical (drum) chairs left Thompson and Rushakoff sharing the honors on Mexican Moon, an eclectic, inflamed major-label debut that veers from the roaring melodrama of “Jenny I Read” and “Heal It Up” to the swirling acoustic guitars and hoarsely whispered (if patronizingly accented) singing of the title track; “Jonestown” employs a sample of Jim Jones and distortion on Napolitano’s voice for effect. Including songs by Steve Wynn (“When You Smile,” given feedback-edged menace) and Bryan Ferry (an attempt to shoehorn “End of the Line,” from Roxy Music’s Siren, into jovial ordinariness), collaborating with cow-punk volcano Texacala Jones (of Tex and the Horseheads) and generally brewing up a frenetic Day of the Dead religious apocalypse in a teapot, Napolitano — who is still a mighty bad singer and doesn’t seem to know it — gives her headstrong, knicker-twisting all to the effort, and very nearly gets by on sheer gumption.
With the star off to try other things under different names, Concrete Blonde ended, its passing marked by the Still in Hollywood compilation of non-album matter: B-sides, soundtrack contributions, live cuts (including an acoustic “Joey”) and outtakes. For better and worse, the retrospective is heavy with other people’s songs: Leonard Cohen, Rick Nielsen, Nick Cave, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan are among the notables whose work gets the Concrete Blonde cement-overshoes treatment. With such low points as a live “Roses Grow,” this stays close to wretched from start to finish.
On the way to her next pit stop, Napolitano made Vowel Movement, a largely improvised and sporadically entertaining goddesses-of-thunder bash with drummer/guitarist/singer Holly Vincent. She then cemented a longstanding palship with Wall of Voodoo by forming Pretty & Twisted with that group’s ex-guitarist, Marc Moreland (who lasted for one P&T album and tour before bowing out, to be replaced by English veteran Knox Chandler); drummer Danny Montgomery completes the trio. While Pretty & Twisted simplifies things and cuts away the artsier pretensions of latter-day Concrete Blonde, it replaces them with dopier ego indulgences: a humiliating fan-letter/song to Marlon Brando (“I’d like to come and visit if you’d give me a call…You are the coolest of the cool/I hope you call”), a song that sets Charles Bukowski poetry to music (wow! what a cool idea) and a sappy homage to a drag queen. Back to her old cover tricks, Napolitano turns Roxy Music’s elegant “Mother of Pearl” into an imbecilic choogle. The bassist essays songwriting collaborations with persons living (Moreland, Paul Westerberg, Chris Bailey) and dead (Janis Joplin is credited with the words to “Come Away With Me”). The high incidence of sensitive ballads and pop stylings (both oddly inflected with bits of feedback and guitar noise low in the mix — is that the “alternative” sound we’ve been hearing so much about?) might have been beneficial if Napolitano’s voice were more intrinsically appealing or her respect for melody more reliable. Still, “Train Song (Edge of Desperation)” is moodily effective, and the harmony-laden “¡Ride!” comes as close as anything in her recorded repertoire to packing genuine vocal allure.
Napolitano moved to the desert and fluttered through various projects, including modeling, art, producing and a brief stint with The Heads, the stillborn recalculation of Talking Heads sans David Byrne. She worked on several film scores, primarily as a featured vocalist. Scarred is her first official solo album, though the majority of it was written and recorded with idiosyncratic London-based guitarist Will Crewdson. It’s a disorganized exploration of Napolitano’s artistic inclinations and dilettantism. “Poem for the Native” and “Save Me” are poems recited over primarily electronic music. “Amazing”, a pathetic love song, sounds like Chan Marshall fronting an industrial band from the late ‘80’s, and, though Napolitano may well be proud of the chorus (“Amazing / You’re amazing / And I am only OK”), it does leaves a bit to be desired. As does the rest of the album. The acoustic “Scarred” comes off as narcissistic and vain. She covers Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, which isn’t bad, but butchers the Velvets’ “All Tomorrows Parties.”