Brit-pop's Main Monkey Man Makes The Grade

An expansive, engaging and deeply-felt album.

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

way to

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):

Full of decision, laden with choice

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.