It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with its mid-seventies heyday that the best Aerosmith album in some years is full of spit, swagger, and a certain practiced sleaze. And it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with its mid-nineties balladeering that the best Aerosmith album of the year is not, in fact, by Aerosmith. It's Time Bomb by Buckcherry, an L.A. hard-rock band whose very name seems to mock the kind of youthful virility Liv Tyler's dad strains for.
Consider it just desserts for a band whose early similarity to the Stones extended to the lead singer's facial features, but Buckcherry now captures the decadence of seventies and eighties hard rock better than anyone who actually lived it. If they remember it only from Headbanger's Ball, they must have been taking notes: They wear bandannas and bad attitudes, write songs about a "Porno Star," and roll out carved-in-the-school-desk lyrics like "Somebody save me from domestic suicide / Don't try to sell me on the safer things in life." (Even the album's dull moments, especially the requisite power ballad,"Without You," could be mistaken for eighties outtakes.) None of this is terribly original, of course -- to paraphrase Puff Daddy, they basically take riffs from the eighties and make them sound real crazy -- but they do a decent job of living up to their source material. Like Aerosmith at its best, Buckcherry has both the rhythmic sway to go with its rock-and-roll stomp and the raw charisma to get away with its period pretensions.
To be fair, Aerosmith has recovered much of its mojo from the mannered Armageddon of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Indeed, Just Push Play seems intended as a Return to Rock that throws smoothed-over Glen Ballard production and cloying Diane Warren ballads out the proverbial hotel window. Mostly producing itself for the first time, the band experiments a little (it's safe to say Play is the only Aerosmith album to feature scratching), and "Beyond Beautiful" and "Under My Skin" have at least some of the groove that attracted Run-DMC to "Walk This Way." Along the way, though, Aerosmith slips into the stylized studio excesses of a professional producer (it might also be their only album to have strings on half the songs), and the ballads the band does deliver are as corny as anything it's ever done. Yelping "Walk This Way" during one song's chorus is a great way to point out just how vital they once were -- but it also underlines how far they've fallen.
Eric Clapton has spent his career caught at a crossroads between blues power and pop polish. But unless you're as much of a purist as he can sometimes be, that sounds like a starker choice than it is. If there's a fine line between hewing to blues tradition and ignoring it, many of his better periods have been spent walking it. Even the suave R&B on 1998's Pilgrim hid reserves of soul.
On Reptile, he's lost that line entirely. Half the album is classic Clapton -- smooth covers of classics (Ray Charles's "Come Back Baby"), bluesy covers of soul songs (Stevie Wonder's "I Ain't Gonna Stand for It"), and catchy originals with gutsy playing. And at its very best, "Superman Inside" for example, Reptile is as expressive as anything he did in the nineties. The other half of Reptile is a series of oddball genre digressions and cornball balladeering. "Believe in Life" combines New Age lyrics with sappy musicianship, and James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" sounds tailor-made for lite FM. Unusually, even a few of the blues songs -- "I Want a Little Girl," "Second Nature" -- are so tasteful and airy they fail as anything but background music. The few genre experiments, while occasionally interesting, aren't much better. Even "God" can't get away with starting a rock album with a samba instrumental.
Just Push Play