If this trio of Aerosmith albums was a set of scenes in a movie, those scenes would occur at the end of the second act where everything falls apart for the protagonists before a sign of hope arrives that hints at a triumphant third act. They represent the valley between the group’s original glory days and their late ’80s comeback. None of the albums covered were hits but they’ve all achieved a cult following to varying degrees in subsequent years.
Listening to these recordings back-to-back gives you an illustration of how the band’s will to survive pushed back on their own self-destructive dysfunctions. Even when they were missing key members or struggling to hold it together (both musically and personally) during this era, they could still turn in a solid album in spite of it all.
Members Steven Tyler (vocals), Joe Perry (guitar), Brad Whitford (guitar), Tom Hamilton (bass), Joey Kramer (drums), Jimmy Crespo (guitar – 2nd album), Rick Dufay (guitar – 2nd album)
NIGHT IN THE RUTS (1979): By any metric, this album should’ve been a disaster: the band had split with producer Jack Douglas, they went way over budget, they had to include three covers to fill out the tracklist, Tyler had trouble completing his lyrics and vocals and the band was in freefall on financial, interpersonal and chemical levels. Despite all this, the result is impressively together and engaged: “No Surprize” is a Mott The Hoople-style bit of self-mythology that slinks along on clever lyrics and sturdy riffs, “Cheese Cake” is an atmospheric slab of sleaze blues and the swaggering “Bone To Bone (Coney Island Whitefish Boy)” is one of their most underrated rockers. You can feel the tension of a band approaching burnout – album closer “Mia,” ostensibly a lullaby for Tyler’s second child, is downright funereal – but they’re also committed to delivering a varied set of material with conviction and chops. The covers are also rock-solid here, the best being an intense, tightly-riffed take on the Yardbirds deep cut “Think About It.” A cult favorite with the fans and deservedly so.
ROCK IN A HARD PLACE (1982): Aerosmith was rejected as a synthetic shadow of its former self here, in no small part because the Perry-Whitford guitar team was replaced by ringers Crespo and Dufay. The songwriting is kind of loose, a reflection of how drug-dazzled most of the players (especially Tyler) were, but the nervous tension translates into a series of intense, well-recorded jams littered with Tyler’s wackiest lyrics: “Jailbait” is a coked-up cartoon of libidinous impulses, “Bitches Brew” uses Br’er Rabbit metaphors to criticize a wayward lass and the title tune is hormonal free-association with “Same Ol’ Song And Dance” horns. There’s also a venture into synth-tinged AOR with the gang melodrama of “Lightning Strikes” and the weirdest song in the Aerosmith canon, “Joanie’s Butterfly,” which doses hard rock with lysergic psych-folk. Purists turning up their noses at this are missing out because this is never dull, played with intensity, produced with big-budget sleekness and Tyler rises above his drug ravages with fiery vocals, especially on a power ballad redux of cocktail jazz fave “Cry Me A River.”
DONE WITH MIRRORS (1985): 1987’s Permanent Vacation is the Aerosmith comeback but the rebuilding process began a few years earlier with this oft-forgotten album helmed by ex-Van Halen producer Ted Templeman. It’s largely considered a misfire by band and fans alike but is curiously likeable as far as misfires go. The bad news is the band is light on memorable material, a problem represented by the leadoff track being a so-so remake of the Joe Perry Project’s “Let The Music Do The Talking.” The good news is the band chemistry is intact, particularly the old Perry/Whitford guitar alchemy, and Tyler’s in fine voice. Highlights here include sturdy rocker “My Fist Your Face,” the way the chugging “Gypsy Boots” recovers that old “Toys In The Attic” fire and how midtempo groover “The Reason A Dog” shifts into an atmospheric, synth-layered second half rich with old-school rock mood. It might roll past your ears on first hearing but builds appreciation with repeat listens, paying modest dividends with a meat-and-potatoes approach that is different from the AOR-ish band they’d become.