Review Summary: Eleventeenth supergroup offers a debut with few declared standouts, but very few lows, either.
In the music world, so-called “supergroups” are a dime a dozen. These superstar gatherings usually appear with a great deal of fanfare, release a fair-to-middling album, then fall prey to their own ego clashes and/or ulterior commitments to their day-job bands. All that is left afterwards is the odd reunion concert or greatest hits compliation, as well as a progressive disbelief from the general public in these types of projects.
As far as megabands go, however, the Damn Yankees weren’t much of one. Sure, they had Tommy Shaw of Styx, and guitar-god Ted Nugent, but the remaining two members were relatively unknown to the world at large. Night Ranger, home of lead singer Jack Blades, will only be known to the more devoted hard rock/AOR fans; and as for Michael Cartellone, he was and remains an unknown property. Even Nugent isn’t that well known outside of hard rock circles, which means the only name the average Joe would recognize would be that of Tommy Shaw – and that’s if
they ever bothered to find out the names of the guys on bands.
Hence, this coalition of almost-not-quite-famous musicians had very few eyes on them (outside of the hard rock world, at any lenght) when they released their 1990 self-titled debut. The result is a solid, if unspectacular, hard rock album.
Now, let me state right off the bat that I’m a Nugent fan. I may not agree with his views on a series of subjects (I don’t), but there’s no denying that the man is an excellent guitarist. Like Angus Young, he is the kind of guitarist who knows how to Keep It Simple, Stupid and still sound absolutely awesome. So, since I never listened to Night Ranger and couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Styx, Nugent was the main draw of this album for me. And he doesn’t disappoint. He welcomes us in on the very first track, with a snaking, AC/DC guitar lead and an awesome chord solo, and from then on he is running on a full tank. A lot of this album is clearly influenced by Nugent, to the point where tracks like Rock City
sound to all the world like b-sides from his regular solo albums (that spouted-gibberish bridge on Piledriver
is so Nugentian, it hurts). Mystified
brings his patented country-influenced licks, and the rest of the album has him signing a varied and confident performance.
Still, for all that Nugent influences this album, the Damn Yankees’ closest match amongst the musicians’ bands is probably Night Ranger. The group is too soft to really match up to Nugent, and far too heavy (and low on keyboards) to please Styx fans. The results sit somewhere in the middle, swimming in the 80’s hair-rock puddle, but never outright diving into it. Let’s say they just dip their toes in it from time to time, but know better than to delve any further into the pool of hairspray and cheese in front of them.
While Nugent runs the show, the other musicians are anything but wasted. Cartellone becomes the surprise of the bunch, putting in a solid and attractive performance on the drums. Despite the lack of name-factor, he all but outshines Shaw, whose bass is barely audible throughout the record. As for Blades, his medium-range register fits the songs perfectly, never straying from the comfort zone, but never underwhelming, either, and always harmonizing well with Shaw’s equally melodious backings. The two alternate on lead vocals, and often appear in duet mode, such as in High Enough
. All in all, solid musicianship from seasoned musicians.
But good instrumentalists are worthless if they don’t write good songs. Fortunately, the Damn Yankees do. Among the ten songs on here, there may be few standouts, but there are very few low points, too. Come Again
is probably the only weak song on the album, and that’s only because it far overstays its welcome. It starts off all right, as a semi-acoustic ballad, then evolves into a mid-tempo rocker in time for Nugent’s solo. However, it’s never all that enticing, and there’s a good chance you’ll become bored while listening to it.
Fortunately, songs like Coming of Age
or Rock City
are at the opposite end of the stick, asserting themselves as the highlights of the album. The opener is an irresistible slab of mid-tempo rock’n’roll, with a great chorus and probably the album’s best performance by Nugent. Runaway
, on the other hand, is unabashedly poppy, almost as if it’s gunning for a spot on an 80’s movie soundtrack. And you can just see it serving as a background to those road-trip montages that were all the rage at the time, with the truck/car/motorcycle speeding down empty desert highways…It also boasts the best chorus and second-best solo in the entire album, giving Coming of Age
a real run for its money.
As for überhit High Enough
, it is a perfectly tailored power-ballad, with the requisite uplifting chorus, soaring orchestration and heart-melting guitar solo. As a whole, it works really well, much like every other ballad of the period. Finally, there is Rock City
, which sees its ridiculous chorus of ”Rock City, here I come/Rock City, USA!”
countered by damn good riffing and overall irresistibleness. Stylistically, it treads a little too close to solo Nugent, with even the vocals trying to emulate the Motor City Madman; all in all, however, it succeeds in conquering your heart.
The remainder of the album is comprised of strong, workmanlike 80’s rock songs. Bad Reputation
and Tell Me How You Want It
are mid-tempo rockers who come close to being standouts, but never quite make it to the big leagues. Can’t Make It
is a Firehousian stomp that may seem banal at first, but slowly ingratiates itself with the listener, while Mystified
just remains on the fence, even after repeated listens. Finally, Piledriver
brings an infectious fast-paced rhythm, even if, as noted, it is basically a Nugent leftover.
All in all, then, the Damn Yankees provide a solid full-lenght debut. It’s a pity that the group would shortly go the way of every other superband, leaving only a (platinum-selling) second album as further proof of existence. In their case, however, it wasn’t so much egos as general lack of interest in hard rock that caused the band’s eventual demise. A pity, because we could use more unassuming, charming hard rock albums like this one.
Coming Of Age