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Ah yes, the 'covers album'. I'll be honest right from the start here; I've always treated the idea of a famous band or artist putting out an album of covers with suspicion. The cynical part of me usually pipes up to say that a covers album is done for one of the following reasons:
1) Contractual obligation or pressure by the record label for a release, or
2) A dearth of ideas and creativity
And sadly this would seem to fit in the second category. The stock response given by artists when putting out a covers album is typically 'we're breathing new life into these songs', or 'we're paying tribute to our musical heroes'. That may be true, but it just smacks of laziness to me.
Not that I have a problem with the concept of songs being covered, as an inspired take on a well-known song can add a new dimension to a song (Ministry's cover of 'Lay, Lady, Lay), or raise it out of obscurity and bring some recognition to the original artist (Soft Cell's take on 'Tainted Love'), or, in some special cases, surpass the original and become the standard (Hendrix's version of 'All Along the Watchtower'). But in this case we see Aerosmith playing a bunch of standard rhythm and blues songs, which were obviously influences on the band's style and taste in their formative years. And since a large part of Aerosmith's sound is a rocky r'n'b sound to begin with, a lot of these songs aren't exactly worlds apart from their original form.
It opens with Bo Diddley's 12-bar standard 'Road Runner', which is fairly inoffensive and the band are tight. Other standards include Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Eyesight to the Blind', and 'Baby Please Don't Go', which is reminiscent of their 70's heyday sound. There are a couple of slightly obscurer choices in there as well, such as Fleetwood Mac's 'Stop Messin' Around' and a version of 'You Gotta Move' which employs some cool psychedelic slide guitar work. The standout is probably 'Back Back Train', where Steven tyler takes a break and lets lead guitarist Joe Perry take the mic, with some support from soul singer Tracy Bonham. It works well, and has a lot of atmosphere. But as a whole, this album is fairly forgettable, with Aerosmith sounding like they're on autopilot. It's a welcome break from them churning out power ballads like some kind of cheese-sausage factory, although the only original composition on here, 'Grind', feature a vocal line that sounds suspiciously like 'Crazy'.
The band play the songs well, of course. It's all in tune, all in time and the songs have a bit of swagger, but it all seems a bit 'professional wedding band'-esque. Tyler's vocals seem to have mellowed a bit with age which is a positive, in my opinion, as I find his upper-range squealings to get a bit trying. But when one considers that this was released in 2004, and is their most recent, the conclusion seems to be that they've either run out of ideas, or can't work together in the studio any more (they haven't released any original material since 2001's 'Just Push Play). This record sees them mostly recapturing the rocky sound that made them great in the 70s, although it is much, much more polished. It's a bit of a shame then that they couldn't put their heads together and come up with a half a dozen songs on a par with those found on 'Rocks', which would have reminded the world that there's more to them than their overplayed Run DMC mash-up or the thoroughly nauseating 'Don't Wanna Miss a Thing'.
So Aerosmith have remembered how to lay down a groove, but not one that's their own. Like 'Garage Inc', 'Spaghetti Incident' and Rod Stewart's 4-million part 'American Songbook' retirement fund project, this is an album that really could signify the end of the road for Aerosmith. It's remarkably inoffensive, and would be better kept in the glove-compartment of your car rather than your CD library. It's OK to drive to, but that's about it.
Maybe they'll stage a comeback- they did it before when they were thought to have vanished in a cloud of white dust and purple haze, only to emerge as MTV's darlings in the 80s - but they're running out of time to do it. It would be nice to hear something as powerful and genuine as 'Rocks' or 'Toys in the Attic' (both of which are excellent rock albums), but I wouldn't bet on it.
You can get this on amazon for a couple of quid, but unless you're an Aerosmith completist or desperate to use up the last bits of an amazon voucher, I wouldn't really call this essential.
Aerosmith have long been known for their huge anthems that allow the listener to forget all of their troubles and rock out without a care but in Honkin' On Bon they decided to take a challenge on and go for the kind of songs that they loved to listen to but no longer hit the charts.
So what is on offer and how does it fare?
Shame, Shame, Shame
Eyesight To The Blind
Baby, Please Don't Go
Never Loved A Girl
Back Back Train
You Gotta Move
Stop Messin' Around
Jesus Is On The Main Line
The songs on offer see Aerosmith return to their origins in these gritty blues style songs with some interpretations of classic blues songs from the biggest and best in the business down to all new works. The album is Aerosmith at their best as they feel relaxed on the entire album and it feels like it has not been an effort to put this together due to the amount of love they have for this style of music.
For any Aerosmith fan it is interesting to look back to what the band started out with and with this truly brilliant album you get to hear the sounds of Aerosmith from the beginning but with the polished offerings of Aerosmith of now. Simply put a must have.