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Vice squad
Velvet Revolver draw on their checkered pasts

Velvet Revolverís debut album, Contraband (RCA), is a shotgun marriage between two unlikely rock-and-roll factions who, a dozen years removed from their respective heydays, do not make such strange bedfellows as they might have in 1992, when Slash, Duff McKagan, and Matt Sorum were enjoying Guns Ní Rosesí last hurrah and Stone Temple Pilotsí Scott Weiland was in the process of becoming the most reviled frontman in alternative rock. There was a time when Guns and grunge were mortal enemies ó in 1994, Kurt Cobain declared a "war" between GNR fans and Nirvana fans. But these days, Scott, Slash, and Duff are equally estranged from what remains of the rock mainstream, and Velvet Revolver are closing their latest sold-out concert tour with a hatchet-burying rendition of Nirvanaís "Negative Creep."

As a brand name, Velvet Revolver works perfectly. It suggests STPís slinky lounge-grunge phase as well as the business end of Guns Ní Roses: together, this foursome are Guns Ní Show Biz. The video for Contrabandís first single, "Slither," was filmed in a series of catacombs meant to evoke a secret club buried deep beneath the streets of LA ó deeper, even, than Axl Roseís mislaid career. Weiland, shirtless and shimmying in gold-lamé bell-bottoms, so resembles the image of Iggy Pop on the cover of the Stoogesí Raw Power that for a moment you forget to compare him with Axl. The song isnít, as fans had long hoped, a return to the gutter-glam hard rock of Appetite for Destruction, but itís appetizing, with Slash sneaking in a few searing, snake-bitten licks, even if heís mostly overshadowed by a galumphing roar. Itís just reminiscent enough of GNR and STP to give you the old rock-and-roll chills, and there are moments throughout Contraband that offer the same prickly glint of recognition. Slashís magisterial solo on "You Got No Right" is his most lyrical since "November Rain," and McKaganís tell-tale bass intros, which heralded the down-and-dirtiest GNR tunes, serve the same purpose on "Do It for the Kids."

Weilandís gift for finding the Beatle-esque potential of a mediocre hard-rock riff saves throwaways like "Spectacle" and "Headspace" from oblivion. The discís likely next single, "Fall to Pieces," resurrects the grunge power ballad, with a little GNR kick: itís "Sweet Child oí Mine" as played by Green River, maybe. And if the guitars have been beefed up to modern-rock standards, the rhythm section retains a GNR swagger thatís several degrees looser than most of whatís on the radio. "Yeah, and you know where that comes from?" says McKagan over the phone from LA. "Steven Adler [GNRís original drummer] and I used to rehearse to Cameo ó just blasting this Cameo song ó because Stevenís meter was a little out and his pocket was a little thin. And Matt [Sorum, Adlerís replacement] was just born with big, beefy backbeat ó itís really more a drive from soul and R&B."

But is it enough? Chris Cornell & Rage Against the Machineís Audioslave proved thereís at least modest success to be had in the grunge-metal superband business; Nikki Sixx & Tracii Gunsís Brides of Destruction suggested that veteran rockers without an A-list frontman are doomed to fail. The stakes for VR couldnít be higher: as one RCA VP noted in a recent Frontline special titled "The Way the Music Died," Contraband is among the labelís two or three top-priority albums of the year, and RCA will spend $2 million to market the disc ó which was made for about $500,000 ó in just the first six months of its release. The tacit accusation of the Frontline special, voiced most explicitly by KCRWís Morning Becomes Eclectic host Nic Harcourt, was that VR are "just too obvious" ó a cynical matter of musical accounting, a cut-and-dried corporate-rock merger. And if Contraband fails to recoup, you can expect to hear a lot more of that language.

Sorum told Frontline that the band went with producer Josh Abraham (Staind, Limp Bizkit) out of a desire to put a contemporary stamp on the album: "We knew we needed to put the sizzle of whatever that is ó the sprinkling of the fairy dust of Ďthis is newí ó and I think we achieved that." In a segment from "The Way the Music Died" that got left on the cutting-room floor, McKagan told the producers that RCA believes "Slither" will change the way modern-rock-radio stations are formatted. But it doesnít need to: those stations are changing already. In Boston, some, like WFNX, are playing more "alternative heritage" acts (classic alterna-rock) while others, like WBCN, spin more plain old classic rock. Audioslave and VR are almost tailor-made for these formats: a new classic rock for the post-Nirvana generation.

"Itís all rock and roll, man," says McKagan, playing down any sense of larger purpose. He continues, "Itís funny, when you called, Singles was on HBO. And just like anything, it looks dated! It looks old! You see Alice in Chains, you see Layne [Staley], and you see Jerry [Cantrell] in those shorts with the full long underwear, like pulled down over his shorts." In other words, even the Seattle grunge that Weiland once stood accused of ripping off on the first few STP albums has become as dated as Axlís headbands.

And what sounds like a trite cliché ó itís all rock and roll ó seems somewhat less so in light of McKaganís circuitous career. Because if youíre looking for the axle around which the Velvets revolve, itís Duff: heís been the secret connection between Hollywood and grunge, between GNR and punk, and between the embryonic VR and Scott Weiland. As a 15-year-old, he played drums in his neighbor Kurt Blochís band the Fastbacks ó in 1979, a decade before the apex of Sub Pop. His next two outfits, the early-í80s Seattle punk bands the Fartz and 10 Minute Warning, also influenced the original wave of grunge (Mudhoney, especially), even as McKagan moved to LA to join GNR. As Nikki Sixx was to Mötley Crüe and the late Cliff Burton was to Metallica, McKagan, as GNRís punk-rock heart, was the ballast to the Sunset Strip glam of Slash and Axl. When, 70 million records later, he left Axlís camp, the last original member to do so, it was no coincidence that he was spelled by another old punk-rocker, former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson.

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Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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