When he’s onstage with Guns n’ Roses, it’s easy to see Slash as the strong, silent type, happily inscrutable behind his thick mop of curls. Unlike Axl Rose, who seems obsessed with verbalizing his deepest fears, Slash would rather let his fingers do the talking, an approach that has led to some remarkably expressive solos but hasn’t told us much about the guitarist’s inner life.
It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere doesn’t alter that image much, either. Even though this is a Slash solo project, the role he plays seems largely the same: He doesn’t sing, he doesn’t talk, and he generally leaves the lyric writing to others. Moreover, given how many Snakepit denizens come from G n’ R — rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke, drummer Matt Sorum and keyboardist Dizzy Reed all play, and bassist Duff McKagan co-wrote one song — it’s tempting to think of this album as a sort of Guns without Rose.
Except that Five O’Clock doesn’t really work like a G n’ R album. For one thing, singer (and ex-Jellyfish guitarist) Eric Dover hardly tries to prove that A. Rose by any other name would sound as sweet. Although Dover certainly conveys the raw-throated intensity of a hard-rock frontman, he avoids the genre’s most obvious excesses, at times almost seeming to soft sell the song. That’s not to say he doesn’t do his share of screaming — “Be the Ball” and the anti-drug “Dime Store Rock” make sure of that — just that he only pushes the envelope when the song calls for it. And by refusing to go flat-out at all times, he brings an unexpected poignancy to the material, from the suicide confessional of “Neither Can I” to the dark comedy of “I Hate Everybody (but You).”
Dover aside, though, there’s also a fundamental difference in the way the music is played in Slash’s band. Whereas Guns n’ Roses typically treat the melody as the most important part of the song, most of what slithers out of the Snakepit emphasizes the playing, as if the multitracked guitar parts are every bit as interesting as what the singer’s doing. Of course, they often are more interesting — and not just to guitar dweebs. What sets Slash apart from most guitar heroes is that he seems genuinely uninterested in showing off how fast he can play or how long he can jam. Instead he lavishes his creative energy on the rhythm riffs and instrumental arrangements, working and reworking them until each line seems to snake out and coil back as though it had a life of its own.
“Good to Be Alive,” for example, kicks off with a broken Chuck Berry riff that lurches along awkwardly for a few bars before a fleet-fingered boogie lick pulls it into line, then slips into a tricky stop-time sequence before sliding into the swaggering, dissonant chorus. Complicated? You bet — and that’s before the guitar solo, the fake ending and the extended rhythm break. Then there’s “What Do You Want to Be,” where the interlocking guitar riffs shuffle the beat so effectively that the song’s pulse is kept off-center right up until the chorus.
Granted, it’s not likely that every listener will be impressed by that sort of musicianship, but fortunately Slash’s ingenuity comes through in other ways as well. “Beggars and Hangers-On” is in its way every bit as impressive technically as “Good to Be Alive” but far more pop savvy. A spurned-love song about a man hankering for a lover “promised to a wealthy man,” “Beggars” features the kind of vocal line the Black Crowes would kill for — a classic Brit-blues melody with just a touch of Southern soul. Slash even makes the pot sweeter by tossing in a tasty Skynyrd-style slide lick on the chorus.
Boogie, by the way, seems to be Slash’s secret passion. As in “Beggars and Hangers-On,” Southern-fried guitar licks pop up in “Good to Be Alive,” “Doin’ Fine” and the instrumental “Jizz da Pit.” “Doin’ Fine,” in fact, is probably the album’s greatest pleasure, a gloriously unpretentious party tune that recalls the days when hard rockers believed that excess in the pursuit of a good time was … hell, the main reason they made music! Here’s hoping Slash brings a bit of that along when his other band returns to the studio.