Wednesday, February 18, 2004

This Left Feels Right

Posted By on Wed, Feb 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM

No, this left feels like veering wildly and driving straight off a cliff into a flooded ravine some 100 feet below. It’s the sound of men who are dangerously pussy-whipped — by Heather Locklear, Calista Flockhart, who knows? — and have been taking some bad medicine, er, advice. Granted, MTV’s Unplugged made it acceptable for dyed-in-the-wool rockers to get in touch with their sensitive sides (to this day I think the best Unplugged episodes were not the ones by 10,000 Maniacs or Eric Clapton, but the Great White and Alice In Chains segments), and nowadays it’s commonplace for a group to tinker with its back catalogue. Remake/remodel or rehash/recycle? Only a true fan’s inner logic can say.

Moi, well, one of life’s guiltiest of pop pleasures has always been Bon Jovi’s "Livin’ On A Prayer." With its pulse-quickening dynamics and deftly wrung melody it’s a memorable slice of Jersey shore, blue-collar rock that pushes the same musical and emotional buttons as many of Springsteen’s you-and-me-babe-against-the-odds anthems. The singer’s subtle but very real sigh of resignation that comes at the end of the lines, "Gina dreams of running away/ When she cries in the night/ Tommy whispers, baby it’s okay – someday", is, perversely, one of rock’s great dramatic highs, conveying more in a single breath than most artists come up with in entire careers.

Prayers can’t help Tommy and Gina now, however, terminally potbellied and saggy-boobed and with their once-timeless teenage anthem cruelly turned into a soggy bowl of M.O.R. duet mush courtesy Jon Bon J. and actress Olivia d’Abo, the teen-poon princess who once played Fred Savage’s hippie sister in "The Wonder Years" (but, like Gina, now lives a life of diminishing returns – "Tarzan And Jane," anyone?). This new version, with its muted acoustic strums, crystalline keyboard flurries and cardboard percussion, twinkles and wheezes with all the pizzazz of a New Age flute concerto. And while I’m mildly fascinated by an admittedly adventurous reworking of the vocal melody, d’Abo’s side of the duet is so emotionally uninvolved — did she stash some ’ludes scored from some dealer during those wonder years? — as to deaden whatever lingering impact the song had. It’s hokier than a love note left on Linda Evans’ pillow by Yanni when’s gone off to headline the Acropolis.

What were they thinking? I won’t even get into the band’s choice of producer, Patrick Leonard, the brains behind Rod Stewart’s and Bryan Adams’ Unplugged albums. No, there are far greater crimes being committed here, from the sampling and ersatz electronica that dots "Wanted Dead Or Alive" and the Elton John-with-strings arrangement of "It’s My Life" to the Sheryl Crow-by-way-of-Bryan Adams (aha!) M.O.R. take on "Bad Medicine" and the bluesy, slide-guit strut that is the new/improved "You Give Love a Bad Name." The latter, unfortunately, fails to do for Bon Jovi what an overhauled "Layla" did for Eric Clapton on his Unplugged album, namely, bring out previously-veiled nuances of an already-classic tune while lending new emotional heft.

Make no mistake, Bon Jovi is one of those bands that I’ve always respected, much to the chagrin of my fellow hacks. That said, in the liner notes guitarist Richie Sambora unintentionally fed me this review’s punch line when he remarked, "I don’t ever recall a band doing this." Well no, Richie, I don’t recall a band deliberately setting out to deep-six its artistic credibility either — Lou Reed doing Metal Machine Music doesn’t count — but hey, more power to ya. Even folks who attempt but fail at suicide eventually maintain simply by living on a prayer or two.

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