A decade ago, Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell was one of rock’s beloved oddballs. With his bodices and feather boas, his neo-pagan notions of earth worship and earthly pleasures, and his wigged-out jive talk, Farrell cut an appealingly flamboyant figure during the all-too-earnest alt-rock era of the late ’80s and early ’90s. His L.A. band Jane’s Addiction pulled together all the disparate elements of the city’s music scene — the hair metal, the punk-funk, and the high-flown pop — churned it all up in their supercollider, and sold millions. On albums like 1988’s ”Nothing’s Shocking” and 1990’s ”Ritual de lo Habitual,” Farrell’s mystic mojo and guitarist Dave Navarro’s nimble fret work whipped up fluffy mushroom clouds.
By the late ’90s, Farrell had become a marginal figure, inextricably identified with an era he helped create. His 2001 solo album, ”Song Yet to Be Sung,” was an interesting attempt to add techno beats to his trippy worldview, but few paid heed. The indefinite hiatus of the enormously successful Lollapalooza, the rockfest Farrell founded in 1991, didn’t help.
The current reunion of Jane’s Addiction (the band got back together briefly in 1997 with Flea on bass), which features original members Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins along with new bassist Chris Chaney, has given the singer a nice zeitgeist power boost. Once again, he’s ”MTV News”-worthy and a music-mag cover boy, and the band’s powerful recent live performances prove it can still bring the migraine pain. Strays, Jane’s Addiction’s first studio album in 13 years, dovetails nicely with this summer’s return of Lollapalooza, but mercifully, it isn’t just an excuse to generate tour revenue. An ambitious, exuberant effort that moves through hard-rock cave stomps into swaggering funk and loopy folk, ”Strays” sounds like the work of a committed band intent on hanging around longer than the current Lollapalooza life span.
”Strays”’ songs are pithier than some of Jane’s epics of yore, but that just means the group has packed more into less space. Fortunately, they haven’t tossed away their best asset, the ability to be aggro and spaced-out at the same time. Producer Bob Ezrin, who worked with Alice Cooper and Kiss in the ’70s, envelops them in a Parthenon of sound, with Farrell’s frequently Bono-like vocals leaving vapor trails over Navarro’s neo-Zep riffs and the rhythm section’s air-locked grooves. This CD sounds large, as if it needs arenas to accommodate its sonic mass and density.
Farrell, God bless him, remains every inch the willful eccentric, waxing bizarro about everything from environmental abuse to illicit sex. He’s got a full socioeconomic agenda here, and his list of enemies is long — rapacious corporations, war-mongering politicians, the eco-unconscious. On the opener, ”True Nature,” he seems to be deriding the far right for its moral hypocrisy: ”Scoring points with God…/Your grades keep falling.” It’s the weakest cut, like an old band aping nu-metal. It’s too Staind for its own good.
But ”Strays” gains momentum on ”Just Because,” Farrell’s plea for a little selflessness in a gonna-get-mine world. He snarls with a touch of Dylanesque vehemence over Navarro’s driving, dizzying riff, turning the song into a toxic kiss-off (”Have you ever done anything for me/Just because?”). ”Price I Pay” is a cautionary tale against big-pimping excess (or not; Farrell’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever). But it’s a great Jane’s minisuite, moving from a quiet intro into a murky maelstrom of wah-wah noise and Perkins’ jackboot beat, and climaxing with a wailing Navarro solo blowout. More than anything, ”Strays” is Navarro’s showcase. He’s this record’s fossil fuel — its indispensable resource — and ”Strays” benefits from his imaginative downshifts and fanciful detours. ”Wrong Girl,” a spiritual heir to the band’s classic ”Been Caught Stealing,” finds Navarro morphing into Dr. Funkenstein, doing it to death with a juicy bit of chicken-scratch guitar. On ”The Riches,” he conjures a Day-Glo psychedelic pastoral with a loping melody line, while Farrell waxes rhapsodic about Mother Earth. On the title track, ”Suffer Some,” and ”Hypersonic,” Carmen Electra’s fiance is everywhere at once. Scrawling wiry leads and phat power chords like a graffiti tagger, the well-grounded Guitar God’s maneuvers and Farrell’s eccentricities are the yin and yang of this band; their compelling chemistry transforms ”Strays” into the stuff of which comeback dreams are made.