You could call this “comeback triptych” of the Crue catalog: the first awkwardly throws Vince Neil back in the deep end of a weird ragbag of alt-rock impulses aimed at credibility, the second is a return to old-school ways that found Tommy Lee missing in action and the third could be considered the older, wiser member of the trio where everyone is mature to realize what matters in their collective, all being determined to present it in the best light.
Fans are quick to debate the merits of all three albums but listening to them end to end offers a fascinating commentary on a few things. The first is how hard it was for glam metal acts to navigate the post-glam commercial music scene and remain vital without alienating their core fanbase. The second is the challenge that glam acts also faced in terms of repositioning themselves as legacy acts: despite having hit albums and singles to draw from, said acts were also denied respect and validity by the gatekeepers of rock criticism. This installment of Catalog Crawl illustrates the pleasures and pitfalls that can be discovered as a band faces such quandaries.
GENERATION SWINE (1997): everything that the Crue got right about modernizing/reworking their sound on their 1994 album goes terribly wrong on this album. There isn’t one vestige of their glammy past here: instead, this barrage of alt-soundalikes cop its moves from grunge (“Confessions”), ’90s punk (the title track) and Rob Zombie’s trashed hi-tech sound (it even uses his co-producer Scott Humphrey). Vince Neil returns to the mic but is audibly uncomfortable with all the alt-rock mannerisms he was directed to use. The album also features the single worst song to ever appear on a Crue album in “Brandon,” an embarrassingly maudlin devotional ballad to Lee’s son drenched in cloying strings and clumsy lyrics. The few good things here are a redux of “Shout At The Devil” that works in spite of its affectations and “Afraid,” an alt-rocker fueled by the album’s most memorable chorus. The end result has the work ethic of post-Dr. Feelgood Crue but its trend-chasing, derivative nature makes all the effort feel pointless.
NEW TATTOO (2000): The “lost album” of the Crue catalog and the only one without Lee. It’s a back-to-basics affair that ditches alt-rock trendiness and focuses on straightforward, energetic hard rock. Nothing here is as iconic as the ’80s material, particularly the so-so ballads, but it’s a spirited affair that benefits from crisp, no-frills production by Mike Clink and engaged performances (Neil in particular sounds like he’s having fun). Mars’ sturdy riffing returns to the forefront and there’s a focus on catchy choruses in each rocker, oft enhanced by Sixx’s side-project songwriter James Michael. The only concession to then-current styles is a nervous energy derived from the pop-punk of this era. It actually fits in nicely, enhancing the rockers: “Treat Me Like The Dog I Am” is a fun example of this. Other highlights include the quirky scenario of “1st Band On The Mood,” the snotty record label critique “Fake” and, believe it or not, a solid cover of the Tubes’ “White Punks On Dope.” It’s a likeable underachiever, kind of like the band itself.
SAINTS OF LOS ANGELES (2008): In the wake of successful touring and their hit autobiography The Dirt, the Crue crafted this concept album to burnish their newly-revitalized reputation. The team is supplemented by Michael and D.J. Ashba, both key players in Sixx A.M., as well as pop songwriting pro Marti Fredriksen. Together, they produce what you could consider the Crue’s answer to Aerosmith’s latter-day albums, with machine-tooled songwriting focused on hooks and high-tech production: “Down At The Whiskey” is a glam-metal nostalgia trip with a warm sing-along chorus and the fist-pumping title track benefits from a cleverly repetitious refrain and tightly-wound riffing. Some consider it contrived but it boasts strong performances across the board (particularly from Neil), consistently rocks hard despite periodic pop-punk or alt-rock affectations, and offers the band’s best set of songs since their 1994 self-titled album. If this is where the story ends, it’s a surprisingly respectable close. Other highlights to listen out for: “This Ain’t A Love Song,” a grooving and gloriously juvenile lust ode, and the tribal-drummed swagger of “White Trash Circus.”