Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Whitesnake, Slip of the Tongue CD review

David Coverdale must not have been a happy camper in 1989. With ace guitarist Adrian Vandenberg injured and Vivian Campbell out of the fold, the British frontman was getting mounting pressure from Geffen Records to follow up on the multiplatinum breakthrough success of Whitesnake's self-titled 1987 effort.

No wonder then that Coverdale tapped musical chameleon Steve Vai to handle all guitar duties on 1989's Slip of the Tongue. After all, Vai was the "go to" guy of choice for everyone in the hard rock world long before collaborations and guest appearances on other people's record became the norm in popular music.

Vai had filled Yngwie Malmsteen's sizable shoes after the Swede's departure from Alcatrazz, and David Lee Roth knew he was the only man who could play his foil after the blond-maned rocker's years with Eddie Van Halen & Co.

Below is a track-by-track take on this quintessential arena metal platter.

"Slip of the Tongue"

A heraldic keyboard intro and quick doses of Vai's harmonic flash open the record with a sense of drama and pizazz. The hook is relentless and rocking. Lusty lyrics conjure images of Coverdale cavorting with then-wife Tawny Kitaen on MTV in a million homes. Welcome back, boys.

"Cheap an' Nasty"

Coverdale gets the record's most awkward moment out of the way early. Maybe he was just playing to Vai's recent resume, but spoken Roth-isms like "Just to the left, love" and "Don't talk with your mouth full" during the song's breakdown sound very un-rock & roll when it's the Queen's English coming out of your mouth.

Even a guest appearance by an ad hoc singing mob called "The Delberts from Hell Chorus" -- featuring Coverdale's former Deep Purple cohort Glenn Hughes -- can't rescue this song from sounding trite and tired.

"Fool for Your Lovin'"

In order to score his first and only No. 1 pop hit, Coverdale dug deep into Whitesnake's history to reprise "Here We Go Again" -- a song that first appeared on the band's 1982 album Saints & Sinners.

So it was only natural that Coverdale would look back to 1980's Ready an' Willing to try to capture the gold again. However, it's the bluesy edges of this track that prevent it from being pop-metal paradise.

"Now You're Gone"

The first of two power ballad-ish moments aimed at the "Here We Go Again"/"Is This Love?" audience.

This mid-tempo number has all the hallmarks of what could be a classic: the keyboard heaven intro with a searing, melodic lead; a few plaintive lyrics about lost love to open the song over a bed of lush keys; a quick cut to a metallized bridge; and the payoff of an arena-rock-sized hook meant for singing along to.

But it all feels a bit "by the numbers" and like it's been piece together from disparate parts, more a product of studio stitchery than anything else.

While we're on the topic of studio work, it never ceases to amaze me that you can still hear unintentional noise bleeding through during the quiet parts on some of these big-budget major label releases.

Pop on a pair of headphones and listen at exactly :21 seconds during the intro to hear a muffled voice in the right channel. Later, at :26 seconds, you can hear an even fainter sound of what seems to be someone in studio laughing as Coverdale trails off from the song's opening lyric.

Perhaps studio whizs Mike Clink and Keith Olsen were too busy producing the Sea Hags' self-titled debut and the Lean on Me soundtrack (!) in 1989 to notice in the final mix!

"Kittens Got Claws"

Was Steve Vai the right fit for Whitesnake? Well, he certainly brings a sense of humor to heard-it-all-before material like "Kittens Got Claws" when he makes his guitar meow and purr during the intro and outro. His vibrato work on this one has that quintessential Vai sound -- as plastic and flexible as a melting watch in Salvador Dali painting.

"Wings of the Storm"

After the rockin' comic relief Of "Kittens," things gets deadly serious again with the driving metallic riffing of "Wings of the Storm." Anyone notice the musical similarity between this number and "Bark at the Moon"? No surprise really, considering that bassist Rudy Sarzo and drummer Tommy Aldridge both laid rhythm for that mid-1980s Ozzy Osbourne classic.

Of course, Vai makes "Wings of the Storm" his own during the solo. Check out the extended descending fretboard run at 3:17 for proof.

"The Deeper the Love"

While "Now You're Gone" may have been the heir apparent to "Here We Go Again," "The Deeper the Love" is my pick as the stronger of the two power-ballad singles.

Coverdale layers his airy vocals like cotton candy over dreamy keyboards. The guitar work rocks you gently with Vai getting extra texture out of what sounds like a bit of finger-plucking at the end of the melody line. And that simple, insistent drum beat is the bedrock for what might have been a wildly popular hit single.

It all comes together in a more organic way than "Now You're Gone," which has just enough moving parts to feel unfortunately forced. "The Deeper the Love", by comparison, just flows seamlessly. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, this one shoulda been more of a contender.

"Judgment Day"

Coverdale has often been accused of being a Robert Plant rip-off and "Judgment Day" does little to counter that belief. A vaguely exotic stampede of percussive chords and subtle sitar work call to mind Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

"Slow Poke Music"

This song has an interesting, stuttering rhythm during the chorus. But otherwise it's not too memorable, despite nice playing from Vai that almost recalls his gritty guitar work on "Tobacco Road" with David Lee Roth.

"Sailing Ships"

Opening with minstrel-like acoustic work reminiscent of Ritchie Blackmore, "Sailing Ships" is the perfect end to Slip of the Tongue.

Toward the end, an extended electrified coda erupts in a flurry of Led Zeppelin-esque sonic stomping. Sublime, soul-searching lyrics like "You'll find that you're the only one / can sail your ship across the sky" leave you with a sense of wonderment and awe at the possibilities of life.

In the last moments of the song, Coverdale hits a dramatic high note that rivals the one in "Still of the Night," while Vai's guitar echoes off into eternity.

Could this be Whitesnake's "Stairway to Heaven," with its meld of unique styles into an epic songwriting structure? Perhaps. This much is certain, though: Like a class act, Whitesnake leave you wanting more with "Sailing Ships."

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