Free, the second album from LA-based Concrete Blonde is today’s pick for my top 100 favorite albums.
Concrete Blonde sits in the 80s/90s “Alternative/Indie” bucket, which means they’re not exactly top 40, not exactly hard rock, and they didn’t have a major label behind them for their first few albums. Free was released by I.R.S., which had also been home to R.E.M. before the band jumped over to Warner Bros. and released Green.
Free opens with “God is a Bullet,” a song about gun violence in Los Angeles in the late 80s. It honestly sounds just a little bit quaint now, given the weekly mass shootings we seem to have to endure. But, when Free was released we were hearing about epidemics of drive-by shootings and gang violence in cities like Los Angeles.
Let’s take a moment to marvel at some of the talent on this album. First, there’s Johnette Napolitano. If you took equal parts of Ann Wilson’s voice, Stevie Nick’s voice, and Joan Jett’s voice, and mixed them together with a dash of Roger Daltry, you’d come up close to Napolitano’s voice.
Harry Rushakoff is a solid drummer and the mix for the album really breaks out the percussion so that you can appreciate every stab on the snare, every bass kick, every time the stick hits the ride cymbal.
Guitarist James Mankey is up front and center throughout. Mankey has some serious chops, and it shows.
Back to the songs. Next is “Run Run Run,” about chasing drugs. This one starts out with an almost whispered intro and minimal bass/drums building tension until the song explodes into the chorus. From there, it’s galloping at full speed.
“It’s Only Money,” is a Thin Lizzy cover. I’m not familiar with the original, so I can’t honestly say how it measures up – but I can say that Concrete Blonde’s take is solid.
I’m fond of all the tracks on Free but “Help Me,” is a particular favorite. If you’ve ever felt lost, put this one on.
“Sun” is a gentler song, breezy guitar and subtle drums underneath a more plaintive delivery by Napolitano. “Roses Grow” is Napolitano giving a barfly inventory of a dive bar, explaining some of the characters and scenarios over a steady drumbeat and occasional guitar flourishes.
My favorite bit of the album, though, is the last three tracks. “Happy Birthday,” has a heavy bass riff underscoring a song about spending your birthday alone. Well, alone and drunk (or high) and poor.
Then there’s “Little Conversations,” just Napolitano over acoustic guitar. It’s a lovely song about miscommunication or lack of communication. The whiskey in Napolitano’s voice really shines here, and it’s just a fantastic little song.
These little conversations if I tried my very best
You know I never could say anything in twenty words or less
Somewhere, sometime, down the line
Someday I may confess and tell you all, well that’s all
The little conversations well on me are very rough
Well they leave me all in pieces as you know there’s never time enough
It’s like a book with missing pages, a story incomplete
It’s like a painting left unfinished
It feels like not enough to eat, starvin’
Finally, Free closes with “Carry Me Away.” It starts softly and then the dam bursts. Mankey’s guitar elevates the vocals and lyrics perfectly.
Free has been in heavy rotation for me for many, many years. I had the good fortune to see Concrete Blonde play live at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis when they were on the Mexican Moon tour. Even after more than 20 years, still in my top ten favorite shows, maybe even my top five.