Few artists over the course of their careers have pulled off “re-invention” successfully. Madonna’s done it too many times to count, striking poses and acting like anything but a virgin. Prince has gone through a name change, or rather, a change to a confusing and completely unpronounceable symbol that led to the inevitable moniker of “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.” (But Prince can get away with it—he’s just that damn cool.) Of course, it helps to have actual musical talent and a reputable back-catalogue of music to fall back on when the public at large is wary of your new style. Unfortunately for aging Brits Primal Scream, neither a new sound nor style can salvage their latest full-length from the bargain bins. Riot City Blues is a meandering mess of bluesy, Delta-tinged rock n’ roll inbred with contrived garage-rock leanings.
Primal Scream as a band always seemed to be on the verge of an identity crisis. Screamadelica was their Happy Mondays-influenced and very raver-friendly segue into dub and dance grooves, while XTRMNTR, with its aggressive political thrust and menacing beats, found front man Bobby Gillespie coming off like an angry Trent Reznor to rather disappointing effect. With Riot City Blues, Gillespie and company find themselves mashing genres and desecrating the hallowed ground that was paved by The Rolling Stones before them. It was enough to give this reviewer the blues and to wax nostalgic for the music from which this album derives its strongest influences.
While other British bands, take Radiohead for instance, have consistently made significant changes to their musical styling on subsequent releases, it’s been their genuine vision that have kept the material interesting. Primal Scream, however, showcase their utter inability for originality this time around, instead making brutally obvious their knack for emulating a different genre with each new release, yet without any prior album’s enjoyability. First single and opening track “Country Girl” clings desperately to Rolling Stones-ish bravado and machismo. It’s an appropriate beginning to an album that will prove, song after song, to be an entirely uninspired listen. “Nitty Gritty” features Gillespie’s best Jagger-swagger with the lyrical pronouncement of “I’ll kiss you black and blue now sugar.” But instead of coming off charismatic, Gillespie just sounds creepy.
Guitarist Andrew Innes crafts some rather memorable oscillating guitar riffs in “When The Bomb Drops,” but the song ultimately flounders from Gillespie’s lyrical sabotage. The Middle-Eastern mystique of “Little Death” marks a return to some of the more memorable moments from Vanishing Point, with hallucinatory soundscapes awash with ghostly organ drones and Native American imagery. In spite of the obvious borrowing from The Doors’ “The End,” it proved to be the only song I could halfway enjoy on the entire album.
Desperation permeates nearly every note on Riot City Blues. From Gillespie’s silly lyrics throughout (“I’m the garbage man/ I’ll stick my fingers in your trashcan” on “We’re Gonna Boogie”) to the butchered balladry and completely uncalled for use of a perfectly good harmonica on the clichéd “Sometimes I Feel So Lonely,” Primal Scream demonstrate that, musically, they’re all washed out. The lesson to be learned: reinvention only works if you’ve got something meaningful to reinvent yourself into. Instead of adoration, the only likely emotion they’ll garner for Riot City Blues is sympathy. And after 9 proper releases and nearly twenty years as a band, maybe it’s the best they can hope for.
The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main Street
Velvet Revolver – Contraband
Primal Scream – Give Out But Don’t Give Up