Velvet Revolver revive the once-fashionable notion of a rock super-group, with a ”Behind the Music” twist: The band features three former members of the excess-friendly Guns N’ Roses and one walking-wounded frontman (Scott Weiland of the defunct Stone Temple Pilots). The mind boggles at the quantity of drugs and alcohol that must have collectively been consumed by these men, and the band isn’t in any hurry to bury that perception. In one song on their debut album — titled (wink, wink) Contraband — Weiland refers to his image as a ”junkie piece of s—.” In another, he depicts a female addict, ”her face packed with cocaine,” and adds a refrain of ”Cocaine/ Alcohol/ Lady-lay/ Withdrawal.”
Such after-hours sleaze feels — to quote one column in this mag — very five minutes ago, but Velvet Revolver don’t care. On ”Contraband,” their goal is to return trashy decadence to rock & roll, whether we want it back or not. The GN’R core — guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Matt Sorum — blare as if unleashing all the energy for which they’ve had no outlet since splitting with Axl Rose. Like a refurbished Corvette tearing down Sunset Strip, they’re determined to ROCK, dammit, and they go about their job with a revved-up efficiency.
Anyone expecting ”Use Your Illusion III,” though, will be in for a slight buzzkill. The songs suggest the pop grunge of Weiland’s old band more than the careening overdrive of GN’R. Ironically, the album’s most potent moments are its contemplative ones. ”Fall to Pieces,” whose title sums up Weiland’s troubles, builds from sullen verses to rafter-rattling choruses. Toward the end of the finale, ”Loving the Alien,” Weiland keeps repeating ”I’m moving on” while Slash’s guitar caresses his words, and the combination is briefly, unexpectedly, moving.
Yet even at its sharpest, ”Contraband” feels secondhand, and much of it is also hobbled by a disconnect between singer and band. Weiland is an apt replacement for Rose in the loose-cannon department; in the video for ”Slither,” he has the snake-thin, hollowed-out look of someone repeatedly busted for drugs. Burning musical rubber, the GN’R boys (and fifth member, guitarist Dave Kushner) appear stoked to reclaim arenas. But Weiland, who alternates between ravaged thoughtfulness and cocky arrogance, doesn’t seem as eager. As the band cranks it up in ”Headspace,” he cautions not to ”let any of those f—ers in my headspace,” as if rethinking rockstar excess. In ”Dirty Little Thing,” he warns someone, probably himself, to ”get away from the drugs you’re taking.” Velvet Revolver may be the least joyous rabble-rousers in recent memory.
Condemning bourgeois convention in ”Big Machine,” Weiland yowls, ”We’re all slaves to the big machine” as the band piles on the mountain-crumbling riffs. In the way they adamantly cling to an earlier, rowdier era of rock indulgence, Velvet Revolver are even bigger slaves than they think.