To at least some snakepit slitherers, the jaw can only be stretched so far when it comes to the partnership between Hard Rock Guitar Caudillo Numero Uno Slash, and slinky crooner Myles Kennedy, of emotive emoters Alter Bridge. This is most certainly not the place to go into the latter (to everyone’s relief), but Slash’s backing band of Kennedy’s “Conspirators” consisting of guitarist Frank Sidoris, bassist Todd “Dammit” Kerns, and drummer Brent Fitz is a net plus, certainly live and on this and every Slash album. The ‘problem’, though, tends to be Kennedy himself. Myles is a nice guy – almost too nice – and his feline voice is – usually – best suited to nice guy things. This can work very well in particular instances, but if a song isn’t particularly noteworthy in the first place, Kennedy’s wailing warble can contribute to pushing it into the territory of exasperation, rather like listening to a cat drowning in a washing machine. You know how Axl Rose just sounds nasty because he can probably be extremely nasty in real life, but that’s exactly what an aggressive GN’R song needs?
And with Slash, a more, uh, destructive, or at least dirty or nihilistic a la Scott Weiland aesthetic is often desired – if not mandated. Myles Kennedy is the kind of guy your daughter might bring home for dinner and reaching for the shotgun wouldn’t even cross your mind, that’s how nice he is. But he makes Slash’s music too nice – or, worse, simply tiresome sometimes, too, something one could never accuse, say, his immediate predecessor Rod Jackson of doing. And so 4, recorded live across just 5 days with country producer Dave Cobb in Tennessee amid band bouts of COVID, is a very mixed bag, closer, frankly, to the mucho middling Apocalyptic Love than to the far superior World On Fire, and nowhere close at all to Slash’s S/T multi-collab magnum opus. In addition to possessing almost a bit too much of a laissez-faire live feel, the difficulty in reviewing this record is that as soon as one is on the self-satisfied cusp of blithely dismissing its worse elements, along slithers the Slash of old to offer you a bite of a different apple, something heavenly enough to disrobe you entirely.
Thumping opener, genitalia-groover and first single “The River Is Rising” is immediately promising, with its tremolo-picking and not least its double-tempo “Paradise City”-like solo, reprised in the outro for good measure, the initial thought (as so often) being: why the hell isn’t Slash saving this kind of filthy locomotion for the new GN’R album? (because it’ll only take another 15 years, of course.) This is reinforced by the notion that genial grime like this would be infinitely better served with one William Bailey servicing the microphone, something that not only haunts much of the body of Slash’s collaboration with Myles Kennedy, but a lot of the rest of this album. And it rarely gets better than this (but when it does, good god…).
That’s one for one so far. But the dime-store rock of “Whatever Gets You By” lumbers along like many of the more forgettable Myles Kennedy songs of albums past, meandering into a chorus that is memorable, but for the wrong reason: it’s like a cheese grater on your remaining brain cells. It’s a shame, as lyrically the song pillories day traders, those “masters of the universe”, but it’ll take a shitload more than this to bring down that contemptible phalanx of locusts. The song is saved by the solo section, so it might have been rewritten around that. And this is where that familiar sense of encroaching doom starts to set in, following the initial childlike euphoria of “Slash is back!” Yeah, but so is Myles…
Ah, but with “C’est La Vie”, now we’re G’n’f’n’R’s’ talking! This is a Slash lick of the highest order, oozing sleaze like only he knows how and snorting you through its Joe Perry-saturated talk-box into the glorious world of your favourite dive bar with a cuteish girl you “kinda” know dancing topless on the bar – and she’s staring you right in the eye. Unfortunately, this momentary bliss turns out to be totally inappropriate, as the song, courtesy of dear Myles, is about a woman fleeing an abusive situation (I know, I know, it’s 2022. Sigh). But still, a lick this delicious should be reserved for something that’s not (or rather, should be the opposite of) a morality tale. The great thing about music is one can do what one wants with it, obviously, but this kind of small-town lyric is better suited to the likes of Poison (OK, not really, upon viewing that monstrosity again) or rather Myles’s day job than the Rock ‘n’ Roll supremo that is Slash. But killer song. Strike Two.
Unhappily, “The Path Less Followed” takes us back to square two above, as it’s the path mostly followed on “Conspirators” collaborations; happy-go-lucky ambling along with the quasi-faux-emo vocals and a song that Slash can write in his sleep, when he’s almost certainly – not – pondering Robert Frost. “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” has a nice (albeit too comfortable) swagger going and might even have a hint of lasciviousness in a different context, but regrettably it’s a literally finger-pointing exercise from Myles about the immorality of, uh, lying. It’s a little lightweight in this pestilent age of social media pathology, and maybe actions do speak louder than words (such as not mentioning the obvious). Equally, the solo is literally something Slash might improvise on any given night on stage after a bottle of JD’s (and he’s been sober for 15 years). So this is starting to get worrying…
It gets worse. “Spirit Love” gets underway with an unintentional left-handed tribute to something The Black Crowes might have come up with in their late ‘90’s near-OD period before leading into the Eastern-lathered, nightmarish atmosphere of… 3rd rate grunge. “Here she comes!,” Myles wails, but before we get all excited, the song is about someone who’s in love with a ghost before sussing they’re an apparition themselves. Wasn’t this done before somewhere? Even with the by-now banal premise, the lack of musical imagination here to boot makes this almost unacceptable. What should be a complete hallucinogenic trip, even with a poor conceptual premise, on paper (like, say, Slash at his absolute best with Snakepit – now that midsection will make anyone come, uh, to), this is about as “alive” as Pearl Jam (and I’m not f#$%ing linking to that).
But with that spiritual flatulence out of the way, comes time to concede the third of 4’s genuinely great successes. “Fill My World” will melt the coldest of hearts because it’s not, as the title may suggest, vapid schmaltz, but about the most pure and selfless love that can exist on this miserable planet. Written about Kennedy’s dog left home alone during a storm – from the dog’s perspective (the singer was stuck in traffic somewhere but was able to monitor the dog), anyone who has ever owned a dog will know exactly what this looks, sounds, and feels like (don’t do this to yourself – or the dog; just always have the dog with you). It’s a beautiful idea for a beautiful song, which, the unadulteratedly masterful “Sweet Child O’ Mine” ambiance slapped on top by Slash aside, is purely thanks to Kennedy – and this is the kind of thing where this partnership genuinely works. So, a tip of the trembling top hat and the brushing away of a wayward tear to that.
“April Fool” has us back in the murky territory of thinking the joke really may have been on us were it not for the above, a pleasant-enough but instantly forgettable ditty with all the lyrical subtlety of a castrated gorilla. By the time “Call Off The Dogs” rolls around, one starts wishing they would be set onto a certain someone again, the song basically amounting to a rehearsal room jam with lyrics this time about a voodoo woman (or something) which unfortunately turns out about as exciting as a brothel during cleaning hours. We’re now at a point where thinning locks are being ripped out in the aforementioned exasperation; how can this mediocrity from the most superior of craftsmen coexist with glimpses off the shoulder of Orion within the space of a mere 44 minutes?
But, of course it can. And it falls, naturally, to album closer “Fall Back To Earth” to save the whole damn thing, which it does, however ironically taking us to the stars where the rest of the album should have been. Slash distils a lifetime of playing the “Godfather” theme and weaves it into his genuinely own iteration, while Kennedy does what he’s there to do, which is to emote – but in the best way, now, because here it’s called for. The Icarian experience of having the greatest dreams crushed is common to all, but what if Icarus survives the fall and what of the burden of reassembling any dream any which way for another attempt at the flight (because one has to)?, the song seems to ask. And that’s a good question, because this is the GN’R-style depth one clamours for from Slash, all vulnerable while hitting you in the gut with the force of personal truth and the glory of a musical angel in flight to support it.
The problem all along on 4 is that a masterpiece like “…Earth” is counterbalanced not by devil may care, however mediocre but enjoyable Rock ‘n’ Roll, but by increasingly tired dad-like lyrical quasi-moralising, large swathes of musical inoffensiveness, and a guy who could make taking a shower sound like the most heart-wrenching thing on earth, which is fine – but not here. Conversely, initial impressions suggested 4 was going to be easy to write off, but the more one listens, it’s not, no matter how much one may think Kennedy is the wrong type of singer for Slash. Slash solo albums generally may not be perfection if held to a Use Your Illusion standard (and yes, those were perfection, so bite me, Appetite-fan boys), but that’s not the point. On one hand, 4 is still too much “dad rock” for a living legend who will, in this scribe’s sincere belief, ultimately sit at the head of the table with Keith Richards to his right in Rock ‘N’ Roll Valhalla, and it’s disarming, not that age is softening Slash, but that it might be making parts of his art mundane. On the other, one also gets the feeling Kennedy allows Slash to be in a place where he doesn’t constantly have to live up to trashed super-hero of yesteryear and simply be somewhere where he feels happy today. And personal taste aside, I’ll be the last person to criticise that.
4 gets a 7 instead of the initial 4 (ha) (mostly because of that dog and because there are some things you must hear before you die). You got me again, Slash (and Myles, God) – but then, you knew you would.
Slash (featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators)’s 4 was released on February 11, 2022, via Gibson Records (naturally)