For his refreshingly frank personality alone, you've gotta love Ian Brown.
The rock world may now be filled not with rebels but with tame corporate
ass-kissers who'd never speak their versions of the truth lest fame and
fortune be yanked from their grasp by The Man, but such a state of
acquiescence would never occur to the iconoclastic former singer for
arguably the most influential rock band of the last 10 years, the Stone
Roses. Agree or disagree with his often contentious opinions on cocaine,
the music of his rivals, his ex-bandmate John Squire, homosexuality and
many other topics, Brown exudes the righteousness (as opposed to
self-righteousness) of one who calls them as he sees 'em, with little
regard for the consequences.
When the Roses disbanded, the general line was that while Squire
was a master guitarist and a musical genius, Brown was a daft kind of Holy
Fool who couldn't carry a tune and would soon fade away. However, that was
before the sellout of Squire's execrable Seahorses put a considerable dent
in his mystique. While Brown floundered for a short time with a revamped
Stone Roses -- who finally gave up the ghost in total disarray, only adding
to his hapless image -- he's gotten the last laugh on his now-enemy Squire
with this, his first solo album. Those who thought the Seahorses meant the
end of the vibe that was specific to the Roses will be gladdened by
Unfinished Monkey Business, a warm, homemade effort generously
suffused with the expansive feel of Brown's old band.
Self-described as an album in which the singer "learns how to play
music," UMB exhibits none of the arena-rock sterility of Squire's
outfit; lacking technique, Brown aims instead to build his music from the
ground up, getting the feel right first before worrying about the details.
More often than not, he gets it right, as on the album's evocative second
track, "My Star," which hearkens back to the guitar-pop glories of the
first Roses album as millenarian conspiracy-theory fan Brown links the
NASA space program to some evil militaristic schemes ("Solar system bases,
the new world order/ Lust for space dust, forming galaxy borders/
Never seeking new life, only planning war/ Sending satellites at new
height, satellites to destroy"). Likewise, the addictive "Can't See Me"
lopes along agreeably on a phat groove reminiscent of Brown's former band's
"Fool's Gold," a direction the Roses abandoned when Squire decided he wanted
to be the Jimmy Page of the '90s.
Brown's former lead guitarist seems to be the focal point for much
of Unfinished Monkey Business' lyrical content. "Ice Cold Cube,"
Squire's nickname back in the old days, lampoons Squire's recent
guitar-god direction with some heavy guitar riffing that eventually gives
an ethereal chorus; the bluesy "What Happened To Ya (Pts 1 & 2)" is more
direct, as the Monkey Man addresses his ex-friend's role in the
the end of the Stone Roses (or at least I'm guessing that's what he's doing):
Cast in a picture that is better than most
And while you work on your big masterplan
The pawns around you were not part of the plan. ...
What happened to ya
Did you change your mind
What happened to ya
We were one of a kind
Did you bury your face
Like an ostrich. ...
Finally, the most damning sentiment of all comes in the subdued
electro-pop number "Deep Pile Dreams," as confirmed pot-smoker Brown accuses
his snowbound old mate of utter shallowness with the lines "All you ever
wanted was a sixty dollar bag/ And a cheap limousine for your deep pile
dream/ On the highway." Ouch!
All of this is not to say that UMB is a perfect album -- in fact,
cold, calculated perfectionism of the Seahorses kind is what Brown goes out
of his way to avoid here, and while his lack of editing skill is
apparent on the over-long "Lions" and the whimsical noodling of the
instrumental title-track, these are flaws that ultimately work to the
album's advantage, giving it an intimate, personal feel that is all but
lost in today's oh-so-"professional" rock scene. Never the most
technically gifted vocalist, Brown works within his limitations here and
digs deep, finding the wellspring of inspiration that helped him knock the
rock world on its ear almost a decade ago. Count this one as one of the
year's most pleasant surprises.