Review Summary: From porn star to harmonica, and all points in between.
Talented or otherwise, entertainers who dabble in both acting and music are ultimately on a hiding to nothing. For every cool cat like Bowie, Waits and Sinatra, there are train-wrecks such as Keanu, Crowe and Joaquin. Cynics would rather perceive these multi-faceted artists negatively, no matter how many Grammys Justin Timberlake wins, or Oscars go to Jared Leto. Sure, it doesn’t help when Paris Hilton, Lea Michele and Leighton Meester jump onto whatever trendy bandwagon passes them, but this should not automatically discount such performers from a promising dual career. One such talent is Meester’s rebellious former ‘Gossip Girl’ co-star Taylor Momsen, whose band The Pretty Reckless released an impressive debut LP back in 2010. Equal parts rock, grunge and blues, the album showcased the then seventeen year old Momsen’s astonishingly powerful and versatile voice to great effect. So much so, that expectations were rather high for follow-up LP ‘Going to Hell’.
If ever there was album art that revealed – both literally and figuratively – an LPs theme, then that of ‘Going to Hell’ is most definitely it. Displaying a crucifix tattoo on Momsen’s back, a downward pointing arrow represents the titular declaration... And if anyone needed to have it explicitly spelled out what would send our beloved femme fatale to hell, then the tip of that arrow adjoining her bare ass crack makes it obvious! If that didn’t, then beginning opener ‘Follow Me Down’ with a fake orgasm from ex-adult movie star Jenna Haze surely would! As sultry and grungy as both it, and the subsequent title track are, the “hell” theme evident here unfortunately goes a little beyond unifying motif and into gimmicky infatuation. It is only hard-rocking highlight ‘Sweet Things’ where this works in The Pretty Reckless’ favour, with the dual vocal dynamic (courtesy of guitarist Ben Phillips) allowing some much-needed tempo-switching, as everything from strings to screams satisfy.
As with the New York-based quartet’s debut, old-school rock’n’roll influences are again apparent, although this time Kato Khandwala’s production leans towards accessibility rather than grit. While far from innovative, Phillips’ insistent riffs and occasional solos will hook listeners in, while the rhythm section provides some stomping beats, a’la the children’s choir-accented sing-along that is ‘Heaven Knows’. Out front, the now twenty year old Momsen again impresses, without necessarily improving sufficiently to graduate into superstar status. ‘Absolution’, ‘Fucked Up World’ and ‘House on a Hill’ best showcase her dynamic vocal range, but while concentrating a little too much on her Lolita-like image doesn’t blunt the strength of Momsen’s voice per se, a by-product is that the tunes rarely capitalize on her understated vulnerability. With Momsen at least co-writing all twelve tracks on ‘Going to Hell’, one cannot help but feel that The Pretty Reckless are ultimately in need of a superior songwriter to take them to the next level.
As it is, one’s opinion of ‘Going to Hell’ overly relies on its theme, Momsen's “rebellious siren” character and the resulting lyrics - which are anything but subtle. There's a fine line between silly and fun, and The Pretty Reckless ride that line dangerously close here. "Don't bless me father for I have sinned" and "I got one foot in the cradle and one in the grave" may be put down as cliche, but how about "Getting heavy with the devil, you can hear the wedding bells" or "When you're young, you always take what you can get. Even bicycles and sprinklers get you wet"? Far from poor, this front-loaded LP does tend toward middling mid-tempo numbers, unrealized ballads and fun fluff pieces as it progresses, but that all seems part of the journey, since 'Going to Hell' begins with a porn star and ends with a harmonica-heavy country tune. A lot happens in between, but The Pretty Reckless don’t do a great deal to prove the cynics wrong here. More frustratingly, they are undoubtedly capable of much better.
Recommended Tracks: Sweet Things, Absolution & Heaven Knows.