Concrete Blonde
Bloodletting: 20th Anniversary Edition
Shout! Factory

Sometimes when albums get so ingrained in your memory, it’s hard to imagine them changing at all. You anticipate all the guitar solos, you sing along with the choruses and verses and know all the actual lyrics (as opposed to the ones you thought you heard on the first listen). You expect all the songs to always play in order after one another (even if you hear the single on the radio), and even the between-song banter becomes part of the greater whole. For Gen-X goths and pre-grunge teens grasping for an MTV band with which to identify, Concrete Blonde’s 1990 breakthrough album, Bloodletting, would soon become that worn-out and memorized record.

Born out of the punker side of the post-glam L.A. scene, Concrete Blonde (infamously named by Michael Stipe for the hairstyle of the bubblegum side of the L.A. scene: Motley Crüe, Poison, et al.) sounded more like a leather and Stetsons band, a la the Godz or the Cult, doomed to obscurity on college-rock radio. With Bloodletting, the band shifted to a decidedly darker aesthetic, dropping most of the slam-dance beats in favor of layered, echoing vocals and squealing, slithering guitars punctuated by impossibly gigantic sounding drums. Johnette Napolitano’s voice stands out as one of the most powerful of her time, able to deliver lyrics about alcoholics, love, death, AIDS and vampires that teetered on the brink of camp, with as much a cheeky wink as a tearful cry. Joining her, James Mankey’s distorted guitar sound was polished to a luster of snaky clarity, each string and whammy-bar accent deliberate and calculated, yet tasteful. Drummer Paul Thompson (also behind the kit on the best Roxy Music records) and his crucial sense of timing kept the rhythm pulsing, but still fresh and interesting, ensuring Concrete Blonde didn’t fall into the void of dull late-80s L.A. bar rock. It was certainly an eye-opening listen for an 11-year-old holding the cassette liner notes and staring at the picture of one bloody white rose among a bunch of red ones and wondering why this band wasn’t featured in the beach scene in Lost Boys. They looked utterly mysterious, with long hair, silver buckles and tall-heeled boots, leather trench coats and worn cowboy hats.

Twenty years later, Shout! Factory is releasing a digital remastering of Bloodletting, with a few extra tracks and an almost painfully clear gloss on the original songs. The real question is whether Concrete Blonde’s vampy post-punk is more suited to Twilight’s chaste latter-day vampires or True Blood’s ultra-sexual, ultra-violent nightdwellers? Judging from the sound of this reissue, whichever camp makes more money might be the answer. It may not be the stated aim of every album remastering job to overproduce and drastically change the mood of the original work, but that certainly doesn’t mean classic LPs haven’t been ruined by overzealous studio execs in hopes of capitalizing on a record’s initial success or a band’s current wave of popularity. The reproduction of ZZ Top’s first few albums (Warner Bros’ Six Pack) after their synthetic ’80s sound became popular or Jimmy Page’s lust to clean the static out of the popular Zeppelin canon (Remasters) both come to mind. The former had classic-rock radio listeners asking what happened to the twang from their Rio Grande Mud, and the latter had completists excited about a fancy new package for the songs they loved, though they couldn’t really point out the changes. Concrete Blonde’s website proclaims that the “Vampires Rise Summer 2010” on a promotional picture for the band’s current tour (reports of which sound like the band hasn’t, ahem, aged a day).

But perhaps there was a reason a few of the extra tracks did not make it onto the original longplayer. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that the original work, though covered in late-80s studio magic, did not have the modern miracle of Pro Tools and all it’s digital glory to busy up the already heavily layered tracks. The originally quiet, squealing guitar in “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” has now slid to the forefront, and the super campy sound of Johnette licking (the blood off) her lips and laughing in the breakdown is just a little too loud—it’s almost like they’re begging for a slice of that current pre-teen vampire fan money, or at least a nod toward their credibility. The cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” though exceedingly faithful, is just boring and excessive. Just because it was a clear live recording and the band didn’t flub any of the changes does not mean it belongs on a reissue. That said, the live versions of “The Sky Is a Poisonous Garden” and “Tomorrow, Wendy,” with Johnette’s pained voice in the forefront, were well worth including. The French club version of “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song),” while being sort of novel to hear the verses in French, sounds like Marilyn Manson got a hand in the production. It’s really just filler when it comes down to it. The excellent B-side of the “Joey” single, “I Want You,” shouldn’t have been buried in obscurity for so long. It belongs with the original tracks and might be reason enough to buy this album again. Ultimately, this reissue (like most reissues) is a capitalist money grab aimed at Gen-X parents wanting to tell their vampire-crazed 11-year-old kids that they were once into vampires too, all the while picking up a new digital version of the cassette they listened to over and over again until the tape wore out.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy