|Also on cassette!|
Like the good student of sound that I am, I'll get my prerequisites out of the way first: Rock in a Hard Place is a drugged-out, self-indulgent, murkily-produced tailspin of a record. In that sentence, I have summed up for you damn near every word of criticism ever put to paper about the album. As a bonus, I'll throw in some mythology for you at no extra charge: this was the bottom-of-the-barrel depth from which the band would eventually reunite and rise, phoenix style, to the heights of ROCK STARDOM once again. You can waste your time nosing around the inter-tubes for verification of these things, or you can be efficient and just accept that I wouldn't lie to you.
The only problem with the story as it is commonly told is that someone forgot to tell Rock in a Hard Place it was supposed to suck. Because it doesn't: it's an entertaining, quirky-as-hell hard rock LP that may be a killer tune or three short of a masterpiece, but it's not even remotely the embarrassment it's made out to be. In fact, I'm willing to make a fairly bold statement about it here, so listen up: I'll take it over any of the band's 1987-and-forward discography any day, with the important and notable exception of Pump. Big talk, I know, but if you're ready to hear with new ears, I'm willing to share with you the secret to unlocking this one. It's simple, actually: you need to completely disregard the album cover and just listen to the tunes as music. First, you need to disregard the graphics; they're utterly ridiculous, and rumor has it Steven Tyler has never been amused by This is Spinal Tap as a result. Wonder why? More importantly, you need to disregard the big AEROSMITH logo on the cover. Clearly, Aerosmith can't be Aerosmith without both Steven Tyler and Joe Perry at a minimum, so why even bother with the charade?
Instead, you need to convince yourself that the album says STEVEN TYLER on the cover. You need to think of it as the solo album it really is, and you need to commend Tyler for having the smarts to keep the ace rhythm section from his day gig around for it. Once you do all of that, the whole thing starts to make more sense. After all, who'd want to hear AEROSMITH play "Cry Me a River"? Nearly nobody, that's who. But would you be interested in hearing STEVEN TYLER the SOLO ARTIST sing it? Maybe. At the very least, the idea is a lot more intriguing. The reality of it is actually well worth pursuing; as it turns out, he sings hell out of the song.
In fact, he sings the hell out of all of these songs. As compositions, they're mostly solid but not exceptional. It's Tyler, who sounds better and more engaged here than he has since Rocks, that makes this dusty corner of classic rock history worth taking a flashlight to. The fact Tyler managed to turn in these performances, some of which rank among his very best vocals, in the condition he was famously in at the time is nothing short of stunning. Does his voice sound wasted on the album? Sure. Does he make it work? In spades; the burned-out, well-earned rasp around the edges of Tyler's voice here lend these songs an edge and a tone that's unique to them. I'm sure the fact that we've never heard this version of Tyler again and the fact that he's still alive bear a close correlation, and I'm more than happy that's the way this story ended. Still, I'm nearly as happy that they got this on tape when they could.
Want one good example? Let's look at the infamous "Prelude to Joanie/Joanie's Butterfly." Like everyone on Earth not named Steven Tyler, I have no fucking idea what the lyrics are supposed to be about. "I met the pony"? "Kick-ass rocking horse"? Yeah, Steven, whatever. I'd say I've not done nearly enough drugs in my life to parse these thoughts, but Rhea, who has never ingested anything stronger than alcohol, named a vintage Volkswagen Bus that she owns after the song. Maybe it's just that I've never owned enough tie-dyed clothing to get it, but I digress. The lyrics are utter nonsense that find Tyler aiming for an epic and ending up with something the Moody Blues probably laughed at over breakfast. Listening to him sing it, listening to the tone of his vocals, though...wow. I end up liking the damned thing, even though every other facet of my taste in music tells me I shouldn't. And that's the worst song on the album.
The better songs are, well, better. They're also pretty much of a piece. In stark contrast to the shambles of Night in the Ruts' construction, this one feels like a full, finished album; the songs play off each other and gel into a complete, unified whole. The rockers are among Tyler's ballsiest (check the title track out if you're looking for a good, typical example), and "Push Comes to Shove" is yet another great entry in the catalog of Tyler's album-closing piano ballads, a genre I'd love to see him resurrect on the band's forthcoming LP. Really, though, the whole thing is far stronger than it ever seems to get credit for, provided you can stop thinking about what it isn't long enough to thoroughly enjoy what it is.