Before you start cracking wise about out-of-work refugees from multiplatinum bands or rock stars with drug problems and arrest records — as if we haven’t seen a few of them in the last half-century — consider this: Singer Scott Weiland, late of Stone Temple Pilots, and the ex-Guns n’ Roses trio of guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum have, with second guitarist Dave Kushner, gotten more done in one year as Velvet Revolver than Axl Rose has achieved with his version of G n’ R in the past decade. If nothing else, banging your head to Contraband‘s snarling update of Eighties Sunset Strip rock classicism is a lot better than laying around waiting for the mythical Chinese Democracy.
Contraband is, in fact, tighter and hotter in construction and attack than we had any right to expect from a band that started out auditioning vocalists while being filmed for a VH1 reality show. Weiland and the emeritus Gunners are not shy about flashing pedigree: “Sucker Train Blues” opens the album with zooming-underwater bass, pneumatic gallop and flying chunks of superfuzz guitar — Appetite for Destruction in miniature — while Weiland pulls out his police-bullhorn-style bark from STP’s “Sex Type Thing.” But the chorus harmonies are closer to dirty Def Leppard, and Weiland’s searing, monotonic chant — more evil monk than howling wolf — takes you right to the center of his very public hell: “Brain and body melting while there’s roaches multiplying/It’s the alien infection, it’s the coming of Christ.” For a guy routinely lampooned as a walking rehab failure, Weiland nails the sweet selfish oblivion and dumb-ass self-destruction of addiction with explosive clarity and no jive excuses.
The déjèvu keeps on comin’ throughout the next twelve tracks: Slash’s high, strangled fills in “Do It for the Kids” and his reprise of the soprano-hiccup lick from “Sweet Child o’ Mine” in “Fall to Pieces”; the tumbling growl of McKagan’s bass and Sorum’s hammering pulse in “Big Machine”; the full-on Stone Temple Roses of “Slither.” But whereas Axl Rose now runs a G n’ R that plays the old numbers like a repertory orchestra — and not enough of Democracy to prove that the album even exists — Velvet Revolver energize their combined histories with original snort (the skewed skittering riff in “Set Me Free”) and punchy vocal choruses. Weiland, in particular, shows that he is far more than the sum of his court appearances and star-crossed years with STP. His grainy yowl — which, at the height of Seattle rock, earned Weiland a lot of lazy, cruel comparisons to Eddie Vedder — is actually a precision instrument that cuts through Slash and Kushner’s dense crossfire with a steely melodic purpose that, when Weiland piles up the harmonies in the choruses, sounds like sour, seething Queen.
Personally, I don’t have a lot of patience for power ballads — they are invariably more sap than nectar — and Contraband stumbles when the tempo slows and Weiland switches from buggin’ out to soft beggin’. And, yes, if I had my way, we’d be getting a real G n’ R follow-up to the Use Your Illusion twins, and STP would now be making good on the interrupted promise of their recent best-of, Thank You. But we have Contraband instead, and it is a rare, fine thing: the sound of the perfect A&R sales pitch turning into a real band. Now we find out if these guys can stay together, and go somewhere new.