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Back in black
The return of Concrete Blonde

Eight years ago, the LA trio Concrete Blonde called it quits after a reasonably successful run that saw them release five major-label albums between 1987 and 1993. In 1995, after some hellish legal battles, frontwoman/bassist Johnette Napolitano, guitarist Jim Mankey, and drummer Harry Rushakoff went their separate ways. For Napolitano, who possesses one of the more wickedly alluring female voices of the post-punk era, that hasn’t meant a complete break from playing music. Although she’s mainly kept herself busy spending time at her place in Mexico studying flamenco and pursuing a career as a visual artist, from time to time she’s resurfaced in music — there were stints in Vowel Movement, with Holly Vincent of Holly and the Italians, and in Pretty and Twisted, with Wall of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland — and production projects, including 1997’s Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals album, which she produced and performed on with Mankey.

"I never dropped out of music, I don’t think I ever will in my entire life," she explains over the phone from her home in LA. "But at one point I felt maybe God was trying to tell me I should be doing something else, so I just said, screw this, it’s probably time to go back to art. When I got older, I really doubted that at this age anybody would still want me doing rock music, because I’m not naive. I was born in Hollywood. One day they like you and the next day you’re yesterday’s news." Yet at 45, Napolitano has decided to give Concrete Blonde one more go. Not only have the band reconvened for the new Group Therapy (Manifesto) and some reunion gigging in LA, but they’re scheduled to embark on a tour that should bring them to Boston in mid to late February.

Group Therapy is true-to-form Concrete Blonde: a swaggering, voodoo-cowboy brand of LA rock, full of sexy-sinister melodies and big, marauding choruses, with a sound that owes its debts but claimed its own territory in the wake of the Pretenders and X. Maybe the same can’t be said of everything in their back catalogue, but this Concrete Blonde album, smoked by a few more years of life experience and musical savvy, feels timeless. There’s not much filler between the hooks, and the band’s musicianship, eight years later, seems leaner, more intentional and precise. The few uncomfortable ’80s-flashback moments — the goofy "Rapture"-style spoken-word verses in "Fried," for instance — are forgivable.

What’s more, the ferocity that characterized a lot of Napolitano’s earlier material has given way to a mature candor that seems braver than rage. Being a 45-year-old woman rocker is an act of courage in itself. And Group Therapy is full of unflinching references to her years and her life choices. "Every face that I see/So much younger than me/And I drink and I think/How I don’t even miss/My glorious past or the lips that I’ve kissed," she sings on the raspy, intimate lullaby "When I Was a Fool." "I see all around me the women on time/Kids and divorces and crises in midlife/So do I surrender and give up my dream/For a brick in the wall and a washing machine . . . "

How the original band came to record a new album involves a certain degree of fate. Seeing old Concrete Blonde CDs still in the stores year after year, and with little in the bank to show for it, Napolitano decided there might be some back royalties worth digging for. She contacted Martin Cohen, the attorney who "got us out of a whole lot of crap when we were fucked 10 years ago." Martin, now semi-retired, put his son Evan on the case. "Not only was Evan quite capable of finding what was wrong — and there were a lot of things wrong in terms of money not being paid to us — but in the middle of it all he said, ‘I have this label . . . ’ So Jim and I talked it over and we said, ‘Yeah, let’s use the money to make a record.’ "

And the album title? "We’re all in therapy," Napolitano reveals. "Harry was actually in rehab [when she and Mankey decided to get the band back together], and we drove out there and checked him out." In fact, each band member was in a fragile place when they reunited. And as Napolitano concludes, "I have a strong belief that we were stuck back together because this is what we each needed in our lives. You couldn’t meet three more vulnerable people right then. All we were capable of was shutting the door and playing."

Issue Date: January 24 - 31, 2002
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