If Detroit really is on its way to being America's biggest post-industrial urban farm -- "Some of these neighborhoods, they're turning back into what people left behind in the South," one longtime resident told a New York Times writer a few weeks ago – Kid Rock clearly wants to provide the soundtrack. He even opens his new Rebel Soul (his sixth studio album since hitting the big time, and ninth or 10th overall) with a rustic, handclap-y, boogie-shuffle boot-scoot called "Chickens in the Pen," complete with lines about mules kicking and cocks doing whatever cocks do at the Dew Drop Inn. Not necessarily crowing. It's not country, exactly -- the groove feels more like Bob Seger circa 1975. But it'd work fine at a barn dance.
The erstwhile Bob Ritchie saves his most blatant honky-tonk moves for album's end this time: Zac Brown-crowd bid "Redneck Paradise," where we don't look for greener grass 'cause homegrown suits us fine; Shooter Jennings-style hangover waltz "Cocaine and Gin"; woozy and weary (if slightly Caribbean-lilting) closer "Midnight Ferry." Earlier, there are a couple semi-acoustic things that might've fit on Kid's uncharacteristically sincere Rick Rubin-produced Born Free two years back: Doobie Brothers/Marshall Tucker-grade choogle "Rebel Soul" itself, which obviously wears its Southernness right in its title, and auld-lang-syney occasional-song cover "Happy New Year." The latter was originally the property of Jersey folk-rocker John Eddie (of 1986 "Jungle Boy" Springsteen-gone-Antmusic semi-hit semi-fame), who was also the songster responsible for "Lowlife," the last, best, and funniest song on Kid's 2007 Rock N Roll Jesus.
That record sold three million in the U.S.; the more tasteful Born Free, branded as a Big Deal with its Zac Brown, Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride, T.I. and Seger cameos -- and curious lack of bad words -- only moved a third of that in an admittedly tougher retail climate. Rebel Soul takes the hint and remembers what works best in Kid Land, throwing caution to the wind and darts at the wall. There's even a ridiculous Flavor-Flav-sampling nü-metal strip-pole throwback titled "Cucci Galore," in case Crazy Town fans have felt neglected lately, and a lonely electronic power ballad ("The Mirror") where Kid tries out that Auto-Tune stuff the teens have been so into lately. But mostly there's old-time rock 'n' roll, Detroit style.
In fact, one song is even called "Detroit, Michigan." Kid Rock didn't write it; one Ronnie Love put it on a B-side on D-Town Records in 1965, and it's mostly an energetic R&B litany of local heroes, musical (Marvin, Aretha, Supremes) and otherwise (Henry Ford, Rosa Parks). Kid Rock substitutes Slim Shady and Bob Seger for Soupy Sales and Mary Wells, and starts with shout-outs to other spots on the map and their own rhythmic legacies, even managing to conflate The Beach Boys and Mötley Crüe in California without actually naming either.
Which is nothing compared to "Mr. Rock n Roll," which opens with too-brief Who-quote power chords, and then goes on to work not only "Won't Get Fooled Again" but also titles from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, Creedence, Ike and Tina, Marvin and Tammi, Aerosmith, Mountain and probably more into its six-and-a-half minutes. The somewhat similarly named "God Save Rock n Roll" is better -- more or less Kid Rock's answer to Seger's "Hollywood Nights" (or "Welcome to the Jungle," or "Don't Stop Believin'," or Donna Summer's Bad Girls, or every third hair-metal song ever). A trash-talking "boy next door" from the tough streets of Southwest Detroit winds up selling his Midwestern soul for L.A. success, letting groupies and coke be his muse until he's writing checks his back end can't cash: "Got dropped in the middle of consolidation/ His wife took half, then taxation."
Clever how he works in those record-company mergers (has anybody else done that?). The song has a good boogie-woogie piano propulsion to it, and despite his Achilles-heel vocal limitations, it's notable how Kid Rock has learned to channel the John Fogerty influence of Seger (and perhaps that of Dan McCafferty of Nazareth into his not-quite-singing. Still, it's confusing when you try to square the song's seemingly populist detail about the protagonist growing "up fightin' for the upper end of lower class" with the photo ops and endorsement Kid gave a certain Bloomfield Hills-bred auto-bankruptcy advocate during the most recent election campaign. Said candidate obviously neither won the big prize nor took Michigan's electoral votes, though most of the state's more rural counties north of the Detroit suburbs did go red.
Kid played a private Republican Convention gig this year too, and he has gone hunting with both Ted Nugent and Hank Williams, Jr. But beyond that, there's no concrete evidence that pair's foam-at-the-mouth insanity has rubbed off -- he complained to Howard Stern after the election about "far freaky right wing people," and suggested he's pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. So it's interesting that two of Rebel Soul's most memorable songs are sort of political. First "Let's Ride" splits the difference between Toby Keith and Drowning Pool soldier-anthems while kicking its dark humor harder than either (AC/DC riffs help): "Bruised and abused on foreign soil/ Trained to kill babies that's what we do/ And programmed to bleed red white and blue," plus stuff about roadside bombs and how this ain't no Saigon (which Kid figures would've been more fun).
Then there's the puzzlingly titled "3 CATT Boogie," basically built on a Mitch Ryder frat-rock beat, right down to the background-party hooting, though lyrically it's another matter: "Preacher man's yellin' that Book of Revelation/ And Uncle Sam's sellin' us a one-world nation/ Banks hedgin' bets for the next generation/ And Wall Street's stirrin' up the whole sitchy-ation." The global government conspiracy part is garden-variety tinfoil-hat silliness, but the rest just sounds like he watches the news while getting trashed, and he works in a line about Arab Spring to boot. Wonder if he sells many records in Dearborn, Mich.