Michael Monroe: Sensory Overdrive

The Finnish sleaze rock overlord is reborn with a superstar new band and his best selection of songwriting yet.

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Looking like a cocktail straw with a thatch of blond hair, and a saxophone hanging carelessly from a bony hip, Michael Monroe always cut a dynamic figure. Sketch out your idea of what a rock star should look like, and there’s Monroe, cigarette dangling carelessly from his lips.

As history bears out, Monroe hasn’t always managed to talk it the way he so admirably walks it. Intermittently brilliant – and always a fireball of life live – but with Hanoi Rocks and as a solo star he’s only managed to be truly irresistible on record a handful of times. Only twice did he hit the ultimate peak where all the ingredients meshed perfectly; on 1983’s Back To Mystery City with his former band, and six years later, his statement of serious artistic intent, the deft and thrilling, Not Fakin’ It.

Somehow, he managed to fritter so much promise away, a Hanoi Rocks reformation was as unremarkable as it was unsurprising and now, somehow, with his crooked smile and cool attached, Monroe’s made the record of his career. It’s no secret that he’s not alone, his latest band were a thrilling accompaniment to the last Mötörhead tour (Lemmy returns the compliment with a gruff vocal cameo on the album’s final song; Debauchery As A Fine Art) and not only do they look the part – perfectly weathered like an expensive and collectible old baseball glove if you must know – they sound it too.

Hanoi Rocks bassman Sami Yaffa comes via a stint with the New York Dolls and brings guitarist Steve Conte with him. Conte (Company Of Wolves, the vastly overlooked The Contes, The Crazy Truth) adds irascible yet measured stabs of guitar and can sing like Steve Perry, so he’s a real boon, but it’s the clever inclusion of The Wildhearts’ Ginger as co-songwriter that’s the tipping point. Fans of The Wildhearts will find much to enjoy here, which isn’t to say that his personality overshadows the album – it’s a solid band affair, it’s just that his phrasing and arrangements ring true through Monroe’s raucous vision.

Producer Jack Douglas has fallen out of mainstream favour since his days working with people like John Lennon and Aerosmith, but his work here should soon see him inundated with offers well into his dotage. Crisp and warm, brittle and dangerous, each song has its own distinct personality, jumping off the tape with a delicious thrill that’s all too infrequent in modern rock and roll. You imagine Axl Rose might listen to this, then cock an ear to Chinese Democracy, sigh and then stab himself in the leg with a sharpened pencil.

It starts as you might imagine – belligerently. Trick Of The Wrist is Monroe’s sneer personified, a blunt reiteration of a life spent in drugs doldrums and how he came through it. A rattling snapshot of dog days spent shivering behind closed curtains in a thrilling two minutes plus. It sets the tone and standard for what’s to follow: cerebral, unapologetic storytelling, punchy, rich and distinct song writing, it’s an utter and absolute finger to the world.

Got Blood? recalls The Ramones if The Ramones had stretched beyond their dutifully drilled two and half minutes of glory. Bolshie and bold, punky yet surprisingly sophisticated – which is this album’s rare gift – it’s somehow snot-nosed but profound. Monroe screams down his microphone, but the melodies are strong; his words are spiky and then considered and then outlandishly bold: in All You Need, the band even go so far as to address a society obsessed with greed. Later Won’t Wait is experimental and dense, a powerful, forearm smash of a song that suddenly lends itself to an extended and understated saxophone solo and spoken word meditation that somehow doesn’t manage to upend the song. Few bands are so brave.

Gone, Baby Gone, built around Lucinda Williams’ distinct vocals, lets Monroe play at being Tom Petty – slide and acoustic guitars marry to create a dustbowl of lost souls, the broken-hearted piled up at the bar wishing on the one that got away. It’s an album that’s engaging and endlessly giving, stuffed full of ideas and opinions, brash and with a ragged beauty all its own.

This year’s high watermark has already been set.

Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.