Al Byrne’s Radio Bile

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Soft rock really gets something of a raw deal these days. Mention in a conversation that you like soft rock (in an unironic way, rather than a “sings along to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ after a couple of drinks at a wedding” way… c’mon, keep up) and you may as well have told that person that you’re partial to licking their grandmother – you’re now a social pariah, and you’d best get used to it. Beard-stroking musos will castigate you for not listening to the Mars Volta’s latest 16-minute prog-jaculation with one hand clenched in a tight fist, and the other down your trousers; meat-headed, dim-witted dunces will laugh at you for being too much of a pussy to listen to “real rock”, which in their atrophied brains includes Hinder’s latest single, entitled “30 Ways to Date Rape Your Own Sister”. Probably.

As much as it’s usually to be found being crapped upon from a great height, soft rock, at its best, is an art form – one that’s been unfairly bullied out of existence by its dumber, uglier progeny. Where once Def Leppard and Poison rode high and proud with capsules of concentrated pop brilliance, all catchy choruses and impossible trousers, now we’re subjected to their modern equivalent, bands with all the irresistible charisma of a dead octopus that’s been left to stew in its own rotting remains for a fortnight, before being dressed up in some black clothes and trotted out on stage to look all sensitive-like. The Fray; Daughtry; All-American Rejects – they’re all utterly, irredeemably boring; all seemingly fronted by the same ident-o-singer who couldn’t come up with a fun chorus if it meant saving his own mother’s life. Which means, when it comes down it, the Fray’s singer categorically doesn’t know how to save a life.

I only mention this because two giants of the soft rock scene are set to release some new music before the year’s out. First on the list: Bon Jovi – the figureheads of that old 80s maxim: “Big choruses, bigger hair”. I’ll admit right upfront that I’m a fairly big fan of most of Bon Jovi’s back catalogue – I’m not averse to what my critical faculties inform me is “bad music”, as long as its fun. Basically, I like everything they did, up to the point where they stopped being cheery, hairy-chested pop-rock peddlers, and became post-millennial, waxed, blando-Americana pop-idol robots. Or at least, that’s what Jon Bon Jovi became – guitarist Richie Sambora’s face now appears to be haunted by the ghost of an ancient, cirrhosis-riddled drifter; kind of like what Keith Richards would look like if he was made of leather instead of scrotal skin. Which is, at least, a little bit rock n’ roll, I suppose.

Despite all my better instincts, I do sort of maybe kind of perhaps not-really-but-seriously-I-do half like it. It’s the exact same first-single they’ve released ever since 2000’s Crush: the same proto-anthemic, stadium-ready nonsense that feels instantly familiar because you’ve heard them write it better a dozen times before. But I do still kind of like it. It certainly beats the obnoxious “country” shit they flogged our innocent ears with last time around – Bon Jovi might unashamedly sit on the “pop” side of the pop-rock see-saw, but they’re a pop band that sound best with loud guitar riffs, rather than grimly plucked country stylin’s. Either way, the two main problems the song faces are easily identified.

  1. Jon continues his trend of sounding like a c(ount – Ed). Ever since Crush, he’s sang with an affected, strangled warble, like he’s gargling his own piss while recording. Or maybe he inadvertently swallowed some of his eerily effective tooth-whitening solution, and it’s calcifying his vocal cords. Either way, he sounds exactly like the smug, self-satisfied prat that he probably is.
  2. The guitar solo, heralded by Jon shouting “GUITAR!”, as if they’re going to break into a two minute tubescreamer masterclass, consists of some dreary octave runs, buried under a sludgy mix. It’s like Sambora’s been replaced by the weird-looking guitarist from Linkin Park. One of the great joys of “prime” Bon Jovi was the fact that there was actually some great guitar work to be found – but their newfound insistence on being marketable to an audience of overly-patriotic, muesli-brained teenage idiots means guitar solos are out, and vague platitudes about “standing up for what you believe” are in. I liked it when they pretended to be cowboys.

Someone who’s not afraid to play guitar solos to teenage idiots is our next returning soft-rock serenader: John Mayer. Like him or not, he’s certainly matured a lot over the course of his four studio albums – from the inoffensive pop pap of Room For Squares to the simmering blues of Continuum; not to mention the three-pronged, schizophrenic identity crisis that was his rather-good-actually live album, Where The Light Is. Like Jon Bon, he’s also guilty of singing with a slightly unpleasant warble, but his doesn’t seem to be an affectation, so much as a natural affliction. So we regard him with a reluctant pity, rather than enthusiastic scorn.

But unlike Bon Jovi, he’s actually moved towards including more guitar workouts in his singles, instead of surgically excising them and throwing them on a giant, effigial pyre, and then dancing around them in the nude, as Bon Jovi presumably do. While this does mean his more recent music sounds considerably different to his earlier work, it’s still all firmly based in clichéd radio-friendly guitar pop; and while he’s certainly capable of writing some effective blues, he’s also not opposed to skronking noisily over Fallout Boy’s ill-advised cover of Jacko’s “Beat It”. So it’s not so much that he’s a “jack of all trades, master of none”, it’s more that he’s a master of his trade, and a complete jack-off.

In any case, his new single (released on the 13th of this month) is actually rather fine. “Who Says” may be fairly similar to “Stop This Train” and “Heart of Life” off Continuum, and follows the familiar pattern of 70’s acoustic troubador pleasantness, but it’s a great pop song, and if Jason Isbell had written it, the likes of Pitchfork and the AV Club would be fondling its teats with the determined enthusiasm of a British footballer in a cheap brothel.

So that’s your lot, folks. Maybe we’ll make this a weekly thing – who knows? I certainly don’t, and I doubt you even care, you bastards. So go on, get outta here.

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  • rather not

    Every genre has its own fair share of beauty, it’s just that soft rock has been too much exposed to commercial channels, and such everyone that thinks its hip to listen to Grizzly Bear or 15 minute long progressive tracks will tell you that it sucks by time. an open mind it all it takes to appreciate John Mayer. Bon Jovi is damn well pathetic. Bring back the loooooooooooooooong blond stupid hair and equally stupid hooks! Excellent right up man by the way.