Goddammit I love Living Colour’s Stain. When I first got that album (on a see-through orange cassette in a cool orange case, and which some jagoff stole along with my car in 2000), I must have played it constantly for, like, a month. It had everything I was looking for in music: cool grooves, out-there solos, killer vocal performances, thoughtful songwriting, thoughtful lyric writing, and it sounded dirty and angry. These were all very good things. Living Colour eventually went their separate ways, but when they reunited in 2000 and released Collideøscope in 2003, I was pretty freakin’ ecstatic, especially because there were a few key elements to that album which made it sound pretty much like an extension of Stain. Living Colour was back and all was well with the world.
So last week I marched on down to JB Hi Fi in Chapel St (hi, friendly JB staff) and plonked down a fistful of I Heart Guitar Funbucks for the new LC album, The Chair In The Doorway. Throwing the CD into the ‘ol player I was curious to see if the newie continued the Stainalike theme. Nope! The first thing I noticed from opening track ‘Burned Bridges’ was that the mix is much more 3-dimensional, the guitar tones are softer and thicker, the drum sounds are deeper, and the playing is much more groove-oriented and psychedelic. Living Colour were always able to bring on the brutal metal power, but even on the gloriously heavy riffage of track two, ‘The Door’ or track three, the super-riffy ‘DecaDance’ (listen out for some cool Whammy Pedal work in Vernon Reid’s solo), some of the upfront edge and bite is removed from the guitar attack, replaced by sludgy, dull bludgeoning. It’s a different side of Living Colour: while the CD is slightly reminiscent in vibe to some of the non-Stainy bits of Collideøscope and maybe a little bit of Time’s Up, and some of the drum/bass interplay may remind keen listeners of Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish’s excellent Jungle Funk work, for the most part Doorway is its own beast.
‘Young Man’ unites a disco beat with some rhythm guitar work that reminds me of King Crimson via a gloriously fuzzed-out guitar tone, while the mid-tempo ‘Method’ is home to some cool synthy textures that remind me a little of David Bowie’s 1.Outside album, overlayed with a restrained vocal performance. It’s one of those songs that rewards repeated listenings by slowly revealing new, deeper layers – one of the many reasons I love this band so much.
‘Behind The Sun’ is another great example of Vernon’s textural approach to overdubs on Doorway. Check out the atmospheric tremoloed and panned single notes in the chorus, over the top of a rhythm guitar figure which singlehandly provides undeniable proof that overwhelming sheets of gain can still be applied musically without sounding like a death metal jamboree.
‘Bless Those (Little Annie’s Prayer)’ has some of the most overtly bluesy songwriting and performance of Living Colour’s career, complete with cool slide guitar parts and an up-front bass/guitar unison tagline, but capped off with yet another hugely fuzzed-out rhythm guitar tone for the chorus. Once again, Vernon is giving us a crash course on getting away with fearsome amounts of gain, and once again it sounds pretty freaking cool. The guitar solo represents some of his most Hendrixy playing ever, and stands out all the more by being the sole guitar track – no rhythm overdubbage here – recalling LC’s live sound.
‘Hard Times’ has a great ominous chorus set against an upbeat verse and a solo which really, really reminds me of Mike Keneally. Seriously, it sounds like something Mike might have played in The Mistakes or on something from his Sluggo! album.
‘That’s What You Taught Me’ is a little more straightforward, once again with a more textural guitar approach which kinda reminds me of Jane’s Addiction, and a steady 8th-note bass pulse. Wimbish’s tone on this track in particular is amazing – punchy and throaty yet supportive and ballsy. Awesome. ‘Out Of My Mind’ has a monster stomping riff followed by an intricate verse which almost sounds like a live band taking a run at something from Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP.
‘Not Tomorrow’ opens up with a bit of a Yardbirds vibe, with some serious ‘old tone’ happening. Killer nuanced drum performance by Will Calhoun here, supported by some mixed-back power-chord rhythmic emphasis by Reid. This track is somewhat meditative, droney and psychedelic, and I’m not entirely sure I agree with its placement on the album. I might have put it between ‘Bless Those (Little Annie’s Prayer)’ and ‘Hard Times,’ but that’s just me.
Finally after a blank track there’s ‘Asshole,’ a straight four-on-the-floor, poppy track with some great dirty guitar tones, soul-influenced sing-along melodies and some coffee-spittingly hilarious lyrics. I won’t give any of it away but seriously dude, you’ve really gotta hear this song. It’s especially funny because the music is quite upbeat. It’s such a great way to wrap up the album,
Alright, so where do I stand on The Chair In The Doorway? Well it doesn’t replace Stain as my favourite. The guitar work is less heroic and more atmospheric, but I kind of get the feeling Vernon Reid is becoming so comfortable with his various other musical guises that he’s happier playing for the song in Living Colour now. Where before he may have packed a fluttering spree of notes into a bar of an LC song, perhaps his musical soul is now being nourished in that way by his solo output instead. The result is a more laid-back Living Colour with deeper grooves and more space and texture, and although there are less killer riffs per square inch, the ones that are there more than earn their space. This is the first Living Colour album that I’ve been happy to let play in the background to appreciate its wholeness at least as often as I’ve found myself devoting my entire attention to its details, my head sandwiched between the headphones.