AC/DC - Stiff Upper Lip
Review by Thom Pugh
To some, hard rock pioneers AC/DC stopped producing music after their uber-successful 1980 outing, Back in Black. The album was the Aussie band's first step into the public eye after the death of former frontman Bon Scott, and the debut of his replacement, English rock veteran Brian Johnson. After twenty years of sales, Back in Black is one of the highest-grossing releases of all time (somewhere in the teens), so why attempt to top what appeared to be perfection?
The truth of the matter is that the band never disappeared, producing a number of albums during the past two decades, as their hardcore fans can attest. Some critics dismissed them, citing the fact that their sound never deviated from the hard-hitting three-chord structure (some early fans mistook them for a punk band) Back in Black had established over their bluesier, "pub band" sound in the 70's. Lyrically, AC/DC is strictly sex, booze, and rock 'n' roll bundled up in a colorful array of double-entendres that would impress even John Lovitt's "Tales of Ribaldry" character on Saturday Night Live.
While they may have stuck to their musical guns for a length of time in which most bands would have realized the need to stay fresh and evolve, AC/DC never claimed to be anything more as a band than what their albums presented. In an age when emotional fragility and teeny bopper swill dominate the charts, the world needs a group that wants nothing more than to crank out some good old fashioned rock. Even the diehard fans, however, would likely admit that the band was slipping quality-wise as the 80's progressed. Their first release in the 90's, The Razor's Edge, did little to give them hope that a rejuvenated sound might be possible. In 1996, however, the group bounced back with Ballbreaker, an outstanding album containing some of the best material AC/DC had produced in approximately fifteen years.
After a successful world tour, the band backed into the shadows once again for another four years. Rumors later spread across the Internet that a new album was indeed in the works, but rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young (considered by many to be the backbone of the outfit), had scrapped a nearly-completed version at least once, and further delays were on the horizon. The band eventually set the release date for some time after the New Year to avoid the "Y2K" hullabaloo. One question remained, however: could it possibly top Ballbreaker?
The result is Stiff Upper Lip, an album that almost seems to be a "sequel," of sorts, to their previous release. Like Ballbreaker, the cover sports lead guitarist Angus Young donning his infamous schoolboy uniform and strumming his guitar as skyscrapers loom ominously in the background. What has changed in the interim is that the cartoonish structures designed by Marvel Comics artists for Ballbreaker have been replaced with a more subdued photo of a lighted metropolis at night. Angus is now depicted as an illuminated bronze statue. If there is any message to be derived from the new cover, it is that AC/DC may be older and wiser, but they still know how to get your head banging.
The detractors may eat their words, as Stiff Upper Lip presents an aural evolution for the band. The album has a much bluesier feel, giving the listener the impression that AC/DC has built something of a bridge between its original and newer sound. It's hardly a revolutionary change, but too radical a step would likely lead to band sounding, well, like something other than AC/DC. The change may be partially attributed to the return of George Young (brother to Angus and Malcolm) to the production booth, as he co-produced all of the band's earlier work in Australia.
Stiff Upper Lip begins earnestly with the title track, a medium-paced melody about the band's favorite subject: seducing young women. AC/DC has generally kicked off its albums with an all-out rocker, but placing the more moderate "Stiff Upper Lip" where it is rightly informs the listener of what to expect from the rest of the disc. Furthermore, Brian Johnson's coarse, throaty vocals-which would tear a mortal man's voice box to ribbons-have aged wonderfully.
Fans hoping for a return to the speaker-blowing fun of old won't be disappointed, either, as the album has its share of loud and proud moments with songs like "Safe in New York City" and "All Screwed Up." The bluesier elements are played up in the excellent "House of Jazz," and to a lesser extent "Satellite Blues" and "Damned." "Can't Stand Still," arguably the best track on the disc, displays Angus Young's nimble guitar playing quite well. To be honest, one characteristic that always set AC/DC apart from its hard rock fellows is that the emphasis was always more on the Young Brothers' music rather than Johnson's words. "Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll" plays like a bit of a redux of Back in Black's "Rock 'N' Roll Ain't Noise Pollution," but is an agreeable track nonetheless.
As a whole, the album fails to top Ballbreaker, but comes close enough to let the world know that those who deemed AC/DC defunct have thankfully been proven wrong. If you never cared for the band before, on the other hand, there's not a thing in Stiff Upper Lip that will likely change your opinion.
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