This year has been an outstanding one for classic rock. ZZ Top teamed up with Rick Rubin for the hip-shaking La Futura. Heart dropped yet another excellent full-length in Fanatic. Rush proved they're ageless with Clockwork Angels. And back in February, a reunited Van Halen surprised everybody with the hard-riffing A Different Kind of Truth. Now it's Aerosmith's turn, with Music from Another Dimension!, the group's first collection of new material in 11 years.
Though these groups are considered Aerosmith's peers going back to the decade of feathered hair and roach clips, their respective careers stand apart from the Boston giants' own. Heart, Rush and Van Halen haven't been actual pop stars since the early '90s, and they're not ever going to be again. It's a fact all of them seem to have come to terms with in recent years, seeing as how none of their new albums come burdened with platinum-stained ambitions (i.e. wild lunges at Billboard fame). Rather, they now do what it is they do best: hard rock. Even Van Halen, with celebrity-obsessed frontman David Lee Roth, took this approach, which is why A Different Kind of Truth (which has yet to go gold here in the States) consists of songs initially sketched out in the '70s.
Aerosmith, in stark contrast, sold a gazillion records throughout the '90s and early '00s. Not only that, they charted far more hit singles in that time than they ever did in the '70s. They became global pop stars in the process, the culmination of which arrived with Super Bowl XXXV and their halftime romp with Britney, 'NSYNC and Mary J. Outside of maybe the Stones (but not really), no other classic-rock band has experienced as much teeny-bopper fandom so late in its career.
This fame radically mutated Aerosmith's post-'80s sound, which with the help of professional songwriters (something the Steven Tyler-Joe Perry tandem rarely resorted to during their Toys in the Attic days) went from Permanent Vacation and Pump, both modern updates of their core sound, to full-blown, power-ballad cream puffery ("Amazing," "Cryin'," "Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)," "Jaded," "Crazy," et al). Though the group attempted a half-hearted return to rawk with 1997's Nine Lives (the title track is really rather ferocious), they re-embraced said cream puffery four years later with Just Push Play.
This leads us to Music From Another Dimension! Produced by the legendary Jack Douglas, who twiddled knobs on both Toys in the Attic and Rocks, it certainly swings harder than Just Push Play. Lead single "Legendary Child," the cowbell-laden "Out Go the Lights," the space-funk strutter "Lover Alot" and the absurdly titled "Luv XXX" all boast the band's tried 'n' true formula, i.e. Beatles-esque harmonies lathered over bar-boogie grooves that (though they aren't nearly as thorny as they once were) still get the job done -- somewhat.
Meanwhile, there's "Street Jesus," an outgrowth of Tyler and Perry enlisting songwriting help from rhythm guitarist (and longtime secret weapon) Brad Whitford. The record's most striking tune, it boasts a muscular blues-thrash that can go toe to toe with anything on Done with Mirrors (still the best Aerosmith record since Draw the Line). On this one, Tyler makes his ravaged voice (he had throat surgery in '06) enhance the song's back-alley grit. Best of all is how the twin guitars do their sidewinder slither above Tom Hamilton's scuzzy bass runs.
But with the hard stuff also comes yet another deluge of sappy ballads. In fact, "We All Fall Down" just might be Aerosmith's sappiest to date. Soaked in sentimental piano-tickle, it doesn't even contain the punchy hooks of "Cryin'" or "Crazy" (which, when you hear them, totally burrow into the ears). Even Richard "Hold On to the Night" Marx would wince when Tyler wails, "I will catch you/ Never let you go/ I won't let you go through it alone." Far more punchy is "Can't Stop Lovin' You," Tyler's duet with Ms. Carrie Underwood. As you surely can guess, this represents the band's explicit attempt at appealing to American Idol/Red State demographics. Its stock title betrays a by-the-numbers character. That said, it would definitely sound dreamy and dramatic while you were slow dancing or making out in one of them 21st-century muscle cars the Motor City now pumps out. Consequently, both are totally valid uses for such a song.
Tyler actually plays things pretty low-key on "Can't Stop Lovin'" (instead letting Underwood carry the tune). That, however, isn't something that can be said of "Another Last Goodbye." Through the decades, as his sartorial bent has intensified and his plastic surgeries have mounted, the singer's vocal style has only grown more and more decadent. As over the top as '80s Tina Turner and Vegas-era Elvis combined, his grandiosity reaches a whole other level on this precious baroque weeper. Which really is nothing more than syrupy strings punctuated by a litany of chalkboard-scraping screeches, yelps, squeaks, chirps, cries and sobs ... down, boy!
Far better is the track right before it: "Something." This slow-groover, a Joe Perry number, also finds him taking lead. He has always sounded like Ronnie Wood's younger brother; this is a good thing, as is the murky organ funk and twisted guitar squall he and the group churn out. Perry also stands front and center on "Freedom Fighter." Featuring backup vocals from rock star-actor Johnny Depp, it's the sort of no-frills, heartland chug-a-lug that would probably make a perfect pregame locker-room fire-up anthem. "I'm a freedom fighter/ I'm a desperate man," the guitarist growls like a guy on the run, accused of crimes he didn't commit.
Both these numbers demonstrate just how far apart Perry and Tyler have grown with the years. No wonder they need to bring in songwriters: one guy wants to follow Jeff Beck into the House of Blues circuit (i.e. tastefully earthy boogie for weekend warriors), while the other yearns to be a television-personality hybrid of Cher and Katy Perry. This, of course, begs the question: Just how many more albums do Aerosmith have in them? After all, infighting, strife and divergent visions almost prevented Music from Another Dimension! from ever getting made. We shall see.