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Music Review: Jane’s Addiction – Up From The Catacombs

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I remember the winter of 1991-1992, driving around in cars with my friends. Shawn had the treacherous old Chevette with no floorboards he'd gotten for $35, and Tom had the tiny Toyota truck and then the boat-sized wood-paneled station wagon. We'd be tooling around the barren back roads of northeastern Ohio, tuning the radio obsessively, searching for another dose of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

No fooling, when alternative rock hit my part of Ohio, it was like the dawn breaking through a permanent midnight. Sure, we already had what we in my area called "progressive music," our Information Society, Depeche Mode, Cure, Violent Femmes, and so on. But as good as that stuff was (and is), the incurable Britishness of most of these bands failed to really connect with something primal inside me. As a red-blooded briarhopper (that's 'flatland hillbilly'), my need for rock just can't be satisfied for long with synthesizers and doggerel 'bout blisters in the sun. Me, personally, I would drive around with my friends, ravenous for another dose of "Teen Spirit," and then go home and put the amazing art-metal crush of Jane's Addiction on auto-repeat for hours and hours. Briarhopper's gotta feed his jones, after all.

Rising out of the same trashy, glammy El Lay scene that gave us Motley Crue, Black Flag, X, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even The Eagles, Jane's Addiction combined parts that just should never have worked together into one messy machine. Stephen Perkins was a clattery, sticky drummer who played like he'd be as much at home in some tweaked-up bebop band, Eric Avery's thick-toned bass was just a little too metal to be merely funky, Dave Navarro was a metal guitarist with an amazing head for dissonant rhythm parts and bluesy leads, and Perry Farrell was… well, what the hell was he? An androgynous little walking id with a thin whine of a voice who keened and snarled and bled lyrics that, in anybody else's hands, would have been painfully earnest, high-school jottings somehow given dignity through sheer force of will and questionable sanity. They were like Guns 'n' Roses' weird little brothers, hanging out smoking pot in the high school art room while their big bro' lurked behind the school beating up nerds.

publicity photo of Jane's Addiction | hosted by Photobucket.comTogether, they made two absolutely classic albums, 1988's Nothing's Shocking and 1990's Ritual de lo Habitual that threw together art school pretension, metal, funk, a few nods to prog-rock, and a heavy dose of drugged-out mysticism to boot. The music and the lyrics bled sex and oil paint, the songs were like nothing ever before, and Perry Farrell stood over it all like a deranged emcee at the greatest drag queen prom ever thrown.

And then they were gone. That was the end of the road for them. Three albums (counting their rarely-heard debut) and gone. Perry Farrell threw his energy into the diminishing returns of the Lollapalooza festivals, and into his next musical project, Porno for Pyros. He seemed to be trying to give everyone a big patchouli-scented Los Angeles hug. Dave Navarro retreated into a sleazy demimonde of drugs and prostitutes, eventually shacking up with Baywatch babe Carmen Electra and engaging in some legendary feats of debauchery while cutting himself off from the world. Just like in Jane's Addiction, his darkness and rock energy pulled in the opposite direction of Farrell's utopian guttery poetry, but without each other's balancing forces, both Farrell and Navarro seemed diminished after Jane's ended. For their part, Avery and Perkins launched projects few people seemed to want to hear, and few people did.

But between their music and Farrell's brilliant idea for Lollapalooza, Jane's Addiction did as much as anyone to usher in the sea change that overtook popular music in the early 1990s, the decade or so where rock was young again. Although less influential than other bands of the time (e.g. The Pixies, Nirvana, Alice in Chains), their cultural impact was much greater than their record sales would indicate.

Frankly, I can't think of a single band in the world more deserving of a best-of compilation than Jane's Addiction, and I'm shocked it took until 2006 for one to show up. I'm also shocked that it's g-d d-mn fantastic. The good people at Rhino, who must surely rise every morning amazed they can do the work they do while drawing pay from their masters at Warner Brothers, have put together Up From The Catacombs: The Best of Jane's Addiction, a seventeen-song retrospective of the band's history that actually manages to do justice to their legacy.

I can't believe it — everything works.

The song choices are practically bulletproof, with the highlights of both the big albums present plus a couple choice tracks each from their debut and 2003's "comeback" album, Strays. Wisely skipped is the fairly awful and decidedly inessential Kettle Whistle, a 1997 stopgap (Janes' own The Spaghetti Incident?) that did more to tarnish the band's legacy than keep it alive. Although big fans can always find something to cavil about (I sort of wish the epic "And Then She Did…" from Ritual had been included), there's only so much room on a compact disc, and a lot of great material to choose from. Jane's Addiction was a two-sided band, working equally well on hard-driving funk-metal and on more unorthodox and generally quieter material. Any best-of worth its salt needs to address both sides of the band's personality without privileging one over the other. Up From The Catacombs hits just the right balance.

The sequencing is inspired, too. The first three songs progressively raise the ante, skipping from the clattering "Stop!" (the lead track on Ritual) to the enormous punch of "Ocean Size" (the lead track on Nothing's Shocking) to the metal attack of a live version of the early favorite, "Whores." Just like with any good mix tape, we then take a left turn into new territory, in this case to the bad hangover of "Ted, Just Admit It…," a disjointed and, I suppose, arty offering off Nothing's Shocking that ably showcases that side of the band's identity. After a couple more heavy rockers (including the unjustly ignored "Just Because" from Strays), the compilation veers into the contemplative, almost for good. Here is where we find the band's high-water mark, the eight-minute epic of "Three Days" as well as the pastoral "Summertime Rolls" and the quietly devotional "Classic Girl." The comp ends (naturally) with the snarling "Pig's In Zen" (which closed out Ritual) and an absolutely fantastic live version of the band's signature "Jane Says."

Absolutely anyone who doesn't have any Jane's Addiction already in their collection should run right out and pick up Up From The Catacombs. Actually, anyone who doesn't already own them should pick up both Nothing's Shocking and Ritual de lo Habitual. Ownership of either the best-of or the two great albums is more than just highly recommended — it is required. I'll be checking.

Jane's Addiction were not necessarily the most influential band on the face of the planet, but in the dark cold days of 1991, they were perhaps the most original, the most interesting, the most creative band on the national scene, and their music has stood the test of time. Hats off to Rhino for a job well done.

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About John Owen

  • fun

    Pigs in Zen closed out Nothing’s Shocking, not Ritual de lo Habitual.