14. Aerosmith

These posts have become really long, mostly due to me choosing extensive greatest hits packages from the bands I'm writing about.  I want to make these posts a bit more concise, and I also want to get away from broad career overviews and into listening to single specific key albums.  We're gonna do that starting right now, with Aerosmith.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research into this band at all before listening today.  In fact, I've spent my life trying to ignore them, so whatever I know is what I've picked up via cultural osmosis.  The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

What do I know about Aerosmith?  Steve Tyler is the singer, Joe Perry is the guitar player, and I have no clue who the other guys are.  Three of their hits from the 1970s are familiar to me ("Walk This Way", "Dream On", and "Sweet Emotion"), then they had a 1980s comeback after Run-DMC invited Aerosmith to do a rap-rock collaboration, covering "Walk This Way".  The band then had some cheesy MTV-era hits, like "Love in an Elevator".  That's all I've got.

A quick web search for "best Aerosmith album" gives us an almost universal first-place choice of Toys in the Attic, with Rocks almost always coming in second.  Rocks seemed more intriguing since it had no real hits on it, but still ranks so highly.  My intuition is that perhaps its popularity is due to it being more of a complete artistic statement, rather than the source for the big hits.  Perhaps it's the real "best" Aerosmith album.  But I went for Toys; two of the three songs familiar to me from their classic period are on it, so I've got that to anchor my listening.

I've complained about mastering issues in some of my older posts.  One thing that hasn't been mentioned in those posts is which master I select to listen to.  So, from here forward, I'm going to note which master I've got.  Speaking as someone who has worked as a mastering engineer, it is abso-fucking-lutely pathetic how many "remastered" records come out sounding way worse than the originals.  I could spend a few hours discussing why (and there are several different reasons all compounding each other), but suffice to say my rule of thumb is that for CDs and all streaming media (in other words, anything in the digital realm) a 1990s master is your best bet more often than not.  If I'm taking a guess, I go 1990s.  This time it's the Columbia Records CK 64401 (1994), part of their MasterSound 24-Karat gold disc series. The gold disc is all marketing by the way. It doesn't do jack for the sound.

Toys in the Attic (1975)
Version: Columbia CK 64401 (1994), MasterSound 24-Karat gold disc. 


Toys in the Attic
Wow, right into it.  No spacey intros, just bang, rockin' right in your face.  Then this vocal comes in.  It's not grabbing me though.  This song has energy but it's treading water musically.  The chorus: "toys toys toys" hard-panned and reverbed.  That's a lame chorus.  Then these verses again.  They sound like Cheap Trick out-takes.  Actually this whole song sounds like something Cheap Trick would have done better.  The way it's mixed is sloppy: everything louder than everything.  The guitars compete with the bass and drums, and then the vocals compete with the guitars.  There are ways to make this happen without everything being so murky.  The mix stops slamming and just gets messy.  But whatever, the song isn't there.  It's a lame song.  Maybe it works live though.  Might get the crowd going.

Uncle Salty
A better mix right off the bat, but man this song is fucking generic.  This is Aerosmith's best album?  I shudder at the very notion of hearing their worst.  The bridge ("ooh, it's a sunny day outside my window") has this reverb on the voices.  Like the choruses in "Toys".  They like to play with that.  Guitar solo is short and tasteful.  The "sunny day outside my window" lyric comes in again.  The panned vocals starting at the 3:00 mark, alternating channels, playing off of each other.  Those are kinda fun.  Yeah, the best part of this song is the end.  Take that any way you want to.

Adam's Apple
This band are just uninspired.  It's like the whole record is filler.  These songs are just low-effort.  Their playing is fine I guess, neither good nor bad.  The production is similarly fine, not impressive, but fine.  But the songs just aren't here.  Wait, listen to that baritone sax in there.  That's a surprise.  I like it.  Even if he's only playing like three notes.  Ah, parallel guitar solos.  I hate to say it, but after listening to The Eagles do this last time (Post 13), I gotta say that even the evil Eagles do that sort of thing better than Aerosmith does.  Hey, what the fuck does "Aerosmith" mean?  Never cared enough to wonder.  Some kind of airplane mechanic?  Or a play on the Sinclair Lewis novel Arrowsmith?  That's probably it.  Is this song still on?  Ack! That falsetto scream!  No.  

Walk This Way
Ok, here's the hit.  Reverb on the drums.  And the vocal.  All of the mixing is much tighter, the whole song is mixed better than the other three have been.  They knew this one was going on the radio, so they spent more money on it.  Oh, and that cowbell.  I got a fever, I need more cowbell.  The band sound way more energized here, and the song itself is significantly more catchy than any of the other three.  Maybe the lyrical substance is no better, but there's a guitar hook here, and a sort of proto-rap thing in the voice.  It's clear why Run-DMC were attracted to this.  If you're gonna do a rap-rock hybrid, this one already has a vocal suitable for that.  This song does have an exuberance in the performance that the three other tepid tracks on this record so far have been missing.  Like the band are excited to be playing this song, but were as bored playing the other ones as I was listening to them.  As the song progresses, the mixing becomes more sloppy though.  Guitar levels are all over the place.  Like the producer and mix engineer made the mistake of letting the band into the studio during the mix and people just started pushing themselves up whenever they felt like it.  Most of the songs on this record sound this way.  

Big Ten Inch Record
This is a cover.  The original 1952 version by Bull Moose Jackson is a raunchy jump-blues R+B classic.  It's funny to hear Aerosmith trying to swing though.  The baritone sax is back, and there's a little piano in there too.  It's a lame cover though.  It would have been way cooler if Aerosmith were just playing it in their style instead of trying to make a freakin' swing record.  The point of doing a cover is to make the song your own.  A hard rock band playing an old R+B thing in an ersatz neo-swing style just doesn't fit on this album.  This harmonica solo.  It needed to have been Joe Perry's guitar.  

Sweet Emotion
I've never really taken the time to pay attention to this song.  This intro is interesting, a little bass ostinato with vibro-slap, ambient effects, and some talkbox effects.  Kinda fun.  When the drums kick in it's the closest this band have come to grooving. Oh, and backward drum effects in the bridge.  All that gratuitous studio trickery gets me every time.  It's a bit heavy-handed in this song, almost too loud.  It shouldn't draw attention to itself at the expense of the song.  But backward drums man.  Love it.  Interesting song structure here too. We've got these semi-rappy vocals again for verses, and then the guitar riff with the backward drums in place of a real chorus.  But the refrain of "sweet emotion" that only happens a few places in the song; it's not even really a chorus.  So they really screwed around with structure here.  It works though.  Then this bridge/solo... which ends up being the end of the song.  Yeah, this songwriting is kind of insane. But like "Walk This Way", they clearly shot most of their wad here.  It's an unlikely choice for a single given how wonky the structure is, and also because it has no real chorus, but it's clearly an inspired moment for these guys.  There was creative potential exhibited here that they don't seem to have tapped into often enough.

No More No More
This title describes how I feel about hearing the rest of this record.  Now that we've got the two big hits and the unfortunate cover song behind us, we're back into the territory of filler cuts.  This one has more going for it than the first three songs on the album.  A little boogie woogie style piano in there, and a bit more energy.  The song "Toys in the Attic" was trying to rock and rock hard, but it just didn't.  This one is a considerably less heavy, but it's got a stronger sense of feel, a better performance, and more authentic energy to it.  It's the best of the non-hits so far.  Nothing special, just a competent mainstream rock song.  It does go on a bit too long though.  This 4:34 song just waffles for the last minute.  An earlier fade would have helped this one.  Did they have a guy who switched between piano and second guitar?  Maybe Tyler handled some of that?  Wondering how they pulled some of this stuff off live.  

Round and Round
Ok, this one is big n' heavy.  But going nowhere.  He's singing about something over this repetitive plodding riff.  See, this songwriting is crap.  It just goes... um... round and round... without really doing much.  Sounds like a jam they never developed into something stronger.  Their producer needed to have helped them develop this song further.  That's a big part of his fuckin' job.  Then these splattering guitar solo-ettes.  They're so far on top of the rest of this murky gooey mix that they sound like they're in a different recording.  This song sucks ass.  Easily the worst on tis album.  Man, we're only 3:15 in, and there's another two minutes to go.  Ok, I'm gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs for a while.  This is fucking tedious.  Even the production effects aren't saving this one.  When flanged backward modulated stuff still doesn't pull me in, then you know the song is worthless.  Maybe this one is good if you're really high?

You See Me Crying
This title describes how I feel about hearing the rest of this record.  Hearing this piano and this string thing after the dark bombast of "Round and Round" just isn't working.  It doesn't flow.  There's some straight-up Queen here.  Is this Steven Tyler singing?  Where's the rasp?  Oh there it is.  Yeah, this song is Aerosmith trying so hard to be Queen.  Well it ain't working.  Do they have a whole orchestra in there?  Sounds like it.  Someone spent some money on this one.  Were they pushing this song as a third single?  Maybe it was.  But I've never heard it.  What the fuck is he doing with his voice at 2:28?  It's like a parody of Tom Waits at the end of "Shore Leave" or Donald Duck or both.  Then the big grand guitar solo and orchestra.  Ok, there is lots of production value here.  This is where the ambition comes back.  They're trying here.  This orchestra is really doing a lot. Someone kicked the producer in the ass after "Round and Round" and told him to get to work.  And he did.  Most of what we're hearing on this tune is the work of the producer or arranger.  None of the guys in the band had anything to do with this orchestration.  This is Aerosmith as puppets.  It's huge though.  They built up some bombast.  The playing is fine.  But it's still just not a great song.  After an instrumental bit, the song is ending and I can't remember the vocal hook at all.  Already.

Selection for IFHTB mix tape:
Hate to say it, but the only true draw for this record are the two big hits.  The orchestration on "You See Me Crying" is nicely handled, and there are pleasing moments on "No More No More" and maybe on the title track, but "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion" are undoubtedly the standouts.  I think I prefer "Sweet Emotion", but "Walk This Way" is probably a better vibe for a mix tape, so there ya' go.

Uriah Heep, Coming November 15, 2021

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