Monday, January 23, 2012

Sympathy for Devil Without a Cause

Unsurprisingly, some of the music I enjoyed in high school hasn't aged well. The Dead Kennedys have lost most of their charm, Pink Floyd's grandiosity now sounds self-important, and the Black Crowes are irrelevant once you've immersed in the Stones. However, in compiling a recent birthday mix CD, I rediscovered a high school hero who overcame all my attempts to resist him.

Judging by his terrible hit Skynyrd/Zevon mashup and the fact that he licensed a song to Mitt Romney's campaign, I should be ashamed for promoting this schmuck. But no artistic or personal disappointment can swallow the fact that Devil Without a Cause rocks all over.

I'm kind of amazed that Kid Rock was lumped in with the nu metal fad when Devil broke. The one-note angst of Korn, Staind etc. is nowhere to be heard in this vigorous, 14-song blend of classic rock and old school hip-hop. The country touches, MC delivery and deftness with samples all remind me of Beck, albeit with no hipster pretenses. Kid Rock isn't trying to get on any Pazz & Jop lists, and if these are the results, we should be grateful.

"Bawitdaba" and "Cowboy" are the party-starting hits, both so contagious that it's almost impossible to foresee the the rest of Devil keeping up. But the Kid and his Detroit band, Twisted Brown Trucker, do more than deliver, offering some of the freshest post-grunge of the '90s ("I am the Bullgod," "Somebody's Gotta Feel This,") and surprisingly authentic tributes to hip-hop's pioneers ("Wasting Time," Welcome 2 the Party.") The riffs are infectious, the band oozes with character (chops less so, but that's part of the charm) and the album flows as seamlessly as one of Rick Rubin's '80s triumphs.

There's plenty of range here. The slow jam ("I Got One For Ya") is far better than it has any right to be, and "Only God Knows Why" is a lovely cowboy ballad, in spite of the auto-tune. The Kid is a cocky narrator, with Devil's themes revolving entirely around Robert James Ritchie, but he's self-aware enough to be a likable rogue. The title track is a rousing statement of purpose from a still-hungry artist, and the Kid is affecting, even poignant, when he closes with a Bill Withers interpolation on the autobiographical "Black Chick, White Guy."

Of course, Kid Rock hasn't been able to deflect the inevitable artistic decline. More recently, he's been releasing mediocre heartland rock with none of the bourbon-soaked swagger that made Devil Without a Cause definitive. Still, nothing will change the fact that he made some of the best rock of the late '90s. Kid Rock will probably never make an album this good again, and he doesn't have to.

Robert Christgau, who usually hates metal, might agree. "Not since great Motörhead has there been a hard rock album with so many laugh lines," Christgau wrote of Devil. "Belatedly fulfilling the rap-metal promise of Licensed To Ill, he makes the competition sound clownish, limp, and corny, respectively."

He still does.

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