Perfect Strangers

The title track comes blasting out of nowhere, like an I'm-alive-and-well message from an old friend you'd given up for dead. With its steamy vocal and genuine, if uncharacteristic, touches of wit throbbing above Deep Purple's heavy signature sound, "Perfect Strangers" sets the tone for this venerable band's reunion album. Lead singer Ian Gillan — who's never been in finer, and deeper, throat — sinuously glides into lyrics that suggest these veterans have something to say about where they've been in the last few years ("Can you remember, remember my name ... I am the echo of your past") and have lots more to offer in the future. For a moment, you almost wonder why Purple ever faded away in the first place. Until, that is, you hear the rest of the album.

Excepting the title cut and the rambunctious but less effective "Knocking at Your Back Door," the material consists of hastily knocked-off jams that allow guitar demigod Ritchie Blackmore to whip out his finger exercises in public. The band spent about six to eight weeks recording this comeback. (The current lineup is actually neither the original nor the final Deep Purple but the most successful — of "Smoke on the Water" fame.) It doesn't sound as if they spent much more time thinking about it, either.

Blackmore's Strat has such a great roar that you're willing to just let it reverberate in your eardrums for a bit. And it's nice to hear Jon Lord's unsynthesized organ squalls, Ian Paice's meaty pounding, Gillan's howls and whispers and Roger Glover's solid bass lines once again. Eventually, though, it's "enough of the sound check already — where are the songs?" Instead of Glover, an outside producer might have forced the band to tighten up its licks and arrangements. Then again, did Deep Purple ever have more than one or two really good, concise numbers on an album? Maybe they're just making the kind of record they always did, the only kind they know how to make.

So why are they doing this? To cash in on the current heavy-metal craze, in which dozens of young upstarts are making fortunes playing Purple riffs? Following a recent meet-the-press shebang promoting the album and impending world tour, the band members (minus the temperamental Blackmore, who, true to his "enigmage," didn't show) insisted they don't need the dough. Perhaps the answer lies in "Wasted Sunsets," a portrait of an aging rock star who's got "gold and silver for the blues" but nothing to do except drink the nights away. It's nice that Perfect Strangers got the Purples out of their respective mansions; too bad they didn't venture farther from home.