Led by guitarist and chief composer Vernon Reid (also a music critic and co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition, a New York organization of African-American bands), Living Colour promises more than it delivers on Vivid. Because the quartet doesn’t match stupid preconceptions about the kind of music people of color should and shouldn’t play, the record raised many a bigoted eyebrow. But such issues aside, this is fairly routine hard-rock, loudly produced by Ed Stasium. (Ironically, one of the LP’s few funky moments is contained in a version of Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait.”) But if Vivid is lacking in the catchy tune/riff department, the topical lyrics are substantial (“Cult of Personality,” “Open Letter (To a Landlord)”), occasionally using ironic humor to make a point (“No I’m not gonna rob / beat / rape you, so why you want to give me that funny vibe?”). Reid’s shred-ready guitar cuts loose just once (très flash, though); Mick Jagger’s guest production of two tracks makes no audible difference.
With a two-million seller and a tour opening for the Stones behind them, Living Colour (again working with Stasium) made Time’s Up from a position of considerable strength. When Reid vents his spleen on the Presley coronation (in “Elvis Is Dead”), he can get Little Richard in to add his thoughts on the subject. While “Pride,” “Type” and “Information Overload” keep the group’s headbanger credentials intact, they also bolster Vernon Reid’s guitar-god status, as he twists together jazzy modals and punky, staccato riffs — though he also displays a deft touch with African high-life rhythms on the hypnotically buoyant “Solace of You.” The album has a stronger Afrocentric consciousness than the first, most bluntly in “Pride” (“Don’t ask me why I play this music / It’s my culture, so naturally I use it”). But the band has more (or less) to say on Time’s Up, the title track of which pays homage to mentors Bad Brains. Singer Corey Glover gets to showcase on the desperate blues of “Love Rears Its Ugly Head” and the spare, lusty funk of “Under Cover of Darkness.”
Biscuits is a filler EP containing two outtakes from Time’s Up and four live tracks from ’89 and ’91. The covers of James Brown, Al Green and Talking Heads provide a road map through Living Colour’s influences; Reid’s treatment of Jimi Hendrix’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” is a highlight of his recording career.
Bassist Muzz Skillings split before Stain, irreparably altering the focus and chemistry of the original foursome. Doug Wimbish proved a fine fill-in, but he was still finding his way into the band when Stain was recorded. That’s not to say the album’s a bomb: “Ausländer” and “Postman” show that Reid still leads a fierce rock outfit; “Nothingness” is dense, ambient funk that lets Glover roll over a fluid Wimbish bass vamp. Topical as ever, Living Colour offers a post-Rodney King rail against police (“This Little Pig”) and makes its case for sexual tolerance on the clever “Bi,” about a couple who cheat on each other — with the same woman. Still, Stain is off-kilter, the work of a group trying to heal itself and get back on course.
Living Colour never achieved either, breaking up in 1994 and sending Glover to a VJ seat on VH1 and Reid to myriad musical projects. The Japanese Dread is the best of the live souvenirs released in other countries; the group’s playing is solid, brilliant at times, and it includes an acoustic version of “Nothingness” and a take on Prince’s “17 Days.” Ironically, four new songs recorded in 1994 — which crop up on the Pride retrospective — form what could have been the core of another compelling Living Colour album. “Release the Pressure” and “Sacred Ground” are molten rockers, “Visions” treads more ambient soul terrain — an American Seal with testosterone — and “These Are Happy Times” is convincing, stomping funk. Too late to save the group, these souvenirs at least provide an assurance that Living Colour never suffered for ideas.
In 1996, Reid returned with his first solo album, intriguingly co-produced by Prince Paul and Teo Macero.