January 20, 2002

Concrete Blonde "Group Therapy"

Bands break up. It's a common fact of life. Artistic differences seem to be the most common cause of band splits, as one would normally expect. Others are caused by the death of a key member, or, even less so, by sheer exhaustion. It's as if the band realized that their efforts were going unheard and, unable to cope with the general apathy and indifference of a bored music scene, simply, quietly, call it a day.

When Concrete Blonde split in 1994, one couldn't help but feel sad. They'd had a major hit with "Joey," and, a year later, had a minor hit with their cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows." Then...nothing. Their post Bloodletting album, Walking In London was simply passable in the face of the previous album's brilliance. This occurrence was not the first in Concrete Blonde's history; their 1988 album Free was nice, but vastly inferior to their 1986 debut, the still-sounds-fresh-today Concrete Blonde. What made Concrete Blonde's decision to call it a day even sadder was the fact that Mexican Moon, while seemingly ignored, proved to be the best album of their career. They finally achieved the perfect combination of atmospherics with their love of Tejano culture, and made an album that still stands today as a very haunting, very spiritual testament to their unrecognized genius. It must have been an utter frustration for them to release their best album to very little acclaim, and, understandably, they quietly called it a day.

Thus, it came as quite a shock to learn that they'd reformed. Rather quietly, they reformed to simply make an album with all three original members, Johnette Napolitano, James Mankey, and Harry Rushakoff. Knowing, though. of the curse of the "next album," the idea of a new album seemed kind of a bittersweet, "what will they be like now" kind of way. Plus, reunion albums always seem to be incomplete; the creative spark seems to be dimmer, and one can't help but be a little bit cynical as to the true nature of a band's reformation. Is it money? Is it an attempt to reclaim long-faded glories? Or, could it possibly be that the band still are relevant and feel like they have something more to say?

I'm happy to say that such worrying was unjustified. Like a fine wine, Napolitano's voice has aged quite nicely, making her already sultry singing even smoother, thicker, and wiser than before. Group Therapy starts out with one of the album's weaker numbers, a tribute to glam rock entitled "Roxy.,"--Roxy as in Roxy Music, 70s glam superstars and ex-Concrete Blonde drummer Paul Thompson's first band. Though the song is lovely and enjoyable in its own right, its use of other glam songs as lyrics seems rather weak and contrived.

"Roxy," while weak as a song, does key one in on the general theme of Group Therapy, which seems to be that Johnette is aware of her aging. Even though this subject isn't hinted in "Roxy," it becomes undeniable in "When I Was a Fool:" "Every face that I see/So much younger than me/and I drink and I think/How I don't even miss/my glorious past or the lips that I've kissed." She realizes her destiny hasn't played up to the "dream" of domesticity, and she admits that she's "free to a fault/45/Playing guitar./Living my life," and at the end, realizes that she'd "rather be me/than anyone else."

The song is followed by "True, Part III," a reference, in title only, to Concrete Blonde's first hit. Whereas the first "True" was a peppy, upbeat little number about life, "True, Part III" is far from the happy moments of years gone by. Instead, this "continuation"
is much darker, much sadder. It's a song about knowing that death is near and wondering if everything you've done in life was worth remembering, and that the mistakes of the past are, ultimately, something that must be accepted. "And I will leave behind/stains and pains/and take the blame for who I am," she hauntingly sings. Her vocal delivery is perhaps her most haunting, most disturbing, making one set aside the rule of separation between an artist's private life and their art, and you can't help but wonder if she is okay. If you ever wondered what "the blues" were, then this song will definitely answer that question, as this is not a song that can be enjoyed. You're left restless, disturbed, and very concerned--which probably suits Napolitaino just fine.

With songs ranging from staying strong in the face of a lover's betrayal ("Valentine") to a lover's betrayal by dying ("Your Llorona") and the realization of inner struggle as the builder of strength ("Inside/Outside"), the lyrical content is much more personal than their previous records. Instead of focusing on the streets or the failures of others, Johnette is more interested in examining her own life than examining others. Musically, the band are in fine form. While they're not doing anything that radically differs from Concrete Blonde's style of acoustic blues and Latin tinged atmospheric goth rock, they do seem to have grown tighter as a unit With Johnette's voice sounding a lot smoother and a lot more mature, the songs resonate with an underlying power that wasn't really present in their glory days.

Group Therapy is certainly a much more mature, less worried about their future Concrete Blonde. It's an air of strength that could have only been achieved by breaking up. Now, Concrete Blonde have nothing left to prove. They've been there, done that, walked away from it all, and have come back to it all. In "Memory," at the end of Group Therapy, when Johnette quietly sings "We're alive and happy to be here/creating melodies/and memories," you realize that, through all the talk of death, failure, betrayal, destruction, and heartache, at the end of the day, Johnette's grateful to both what she had and lost, and is happy to simply have what she has to return to. A welcome return to a group whose far from past their prime.

--Joseph Kyle

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