Lee Aaron - Fire and Gasoline | rating: 3/10
I have a rule when it comes to music journalism. Typically speaking, I try to steer clear controversial topics. I have always maintained that it is my responsibility as a journalist to assess the quality and effectiveness of the musical content of albums I review and live performances I attend, not the validity or relevance of any additional underlying message included in its content. That's not to say that I won't acknowledge the presence of such material, yet while I may point out any social, moral or political fences to cross in lyrical content, the rest is yours to figure out.
Though I may attempt to remain neutrality via neglect on paper, I have naturally encountered musical content that interlinks with controversial topics of discussion; it's pretty hard to dodge the bullet on this one. Musicians have been doing it for decades, and the likes of The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and even Coldplay spring to mind in just a few seconds of thought.
Indeed, in the youth of my career as a music journalist, I found myself presented with a live performance from Vag Halen, a lesbian feminist rock cover act of Canadian origin. The boastfully-titled group had travelled all the way from Ontario to grace our little seaside town of Bournemouth with a night of celebration, holding high the concepts of open sexuality and proud femininity.
I stood to the side of the stage, watching as the band's vocalist defiantly tore at her clothes, revealing herself to the crowd and wildly demanding that we “get slutty”, and experienced first-hand the results of their almost feral performance. Working up a storm of excitement among female crowd members, the few men that were present in the venue became visibly uncomfortable, perhaps even threatened by this vicious display of sexuality.
While the men sank to the rear of the venue to order another drink, the female populous surged to the front-lines of the on-stage war against misogyny, seemingly spellbound by the on-stage antics of the energetic and sexually-charged performers. Even during the post-performance chatter as the crowd filed out of the venue, the divide in gender encouraged by Vag Halen was obvious, and undeniably fascinating to behold.
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with “Fire And Gasoline”, the latest studio release from rock and jazz singer Lee Aaron. The album and artist are both listed in the title of this article, yet it will appear to some as though I have kicked things off with a random trip down memory lane, just for the hell of it. I promise you this isn't the case. The connection between my views on socio-political journalism, my story about Vag Halen and Lee Aaron's most recent album will become apparent a little later on, but for now let's blast through some quick facts, figures and highlights that surround this release.
Though recent years have heralded the release of a number of live albums from the artist, it's been some time since the release of “Beautiful Things”, Aaron's last studio offering from 2004. “Fire And Gasoline” represents an impressive thirty-something years of activity for Aaron - also of Canadian descent. The album is out now, so you can grab a copy whenever you please.
Featuring a dusty, western blues vibe with a pop rock exterior, “Fire And Gasoline” spreads across a healthy offering of eleven tracks, weighing in at just under 50 minutes of content. The longest-running track reaches six minutes and thirty seconds, with most sitting comfortably at 3 minutes or so. The album is beautifully crafted with a high level of production, and Aaron's vocal presence remains captivating and impressive for the most part.
Highlights appear in the musicianship featured in the tracks “Heart Fix” and “50 Miles”, which present a flicker of colour delivered with sass and bite, mixing much of the characteristics of the popular Alannah Myles classic “Black Velvet” with 90's pop star Shania Twain's “That Don't Impress Me Much”. This might sound pretty dreadful to some, but it works surprisingly well for these two tracks and creates a catchy and interesting weave of styles, making these two tracks well worth a listen if you happen upon them.
Okay. Cool. Now comes the tricky part, 'cause this is where the praise stops for Aaron's latest release.
There's a rather large and dark rain cloud hanging over “Fire And Gasoline”, formed of a combination of factors, and although the album features a great production level, we're not talking about duff notes here. No amount of technical wizardry can mask it, and you'll have to excuse my French, but what I'm talking about is fucking obvious from the offset, turning “Fire And Gasoline” into a smouldering pile of ash long before it has the opportunity to blaze into life. This “rain cloud” I'm speaking of will take a little explaining, so let's start from the top...
Though she's been a jazz singer and a heavy metal mistress in previous years, “Fire And Gasoline” falls into neither of these categories. It lies, in fact, somewhere in the middle ground of what I like to call “Disney Rock”. It's the sort of music that appeals to a certain demographic that you can probably figure out without too much indication on my part. This isn't much of a negative point, as it's undeniably a commercially popular style that's proven successful for many former rock artists in the past, even if they've been accused of “selling out”.
It certainly wouldn't be a problem for “Fire And Gasoline”, if not for the fact that the album is plagued with what seems to me to be an underdeveloped level of musicianship. Aaron's latest release seems to be built on a foundation of predictable, rock-by-numbers instrumental movements and awkwardly unimaginative lyrics. There's nothing out of the ordinary here, and this means there's very little present to help deliver her standpoint with grit and prominence before falling into the realms of “background ambience”.
This underdeveloped and simplistic style is pretty much a defining characteristic of “Disney Rock”, yet given the fact Aaron is most famous for donning near-Amazonian garb for the music video of 1984's glam metal belter “Metal Queen” (a song wholly intended as a hearty crotch-shot to 1981's animated movie, Heavy Metal) you can understand why I may have expected a touch more lyrical maturity and song writing wisdom from her some 30 years later.
Instead, we are treated to passages arguably intended to be clever, meaningful and poetic that simply end up feeling hollow - almost cringe-worthy - by modern standards. What is presented here in “Fire and Gasoline” seems more like a sort of cheesy pop-rock narrative, something a mother might present to her teenage daughter after having a quick and awkward chat about the bird and the bees.
Quirky songs like “Popular” draw upon the struggles of social popularity while “Bad Boyfriend”, “If You Don't Love Me Anymore” and pretty much the rest of the album focusses on the highs, lows and effects of love. It's all delivered with a little too much musical and lyrical innocence, and you can imagine my surprise (or lack thereof) when I discovered that that “Tomboy”, the album's opening track, was written for Aaron's daughter.
I doubt I'll be alone in feeling that the pop-rock vibe and sugar-coated, “good-girl-gone-bad” lyricism just doesn't cut it for me anymore. It's a style that's been going since the late 90's, and while I'll admit that as a man in my mid-twenties I certainly don't fall into the demographic of coming-of-age teen girls, I doubt that it will speak volumes to today's generation, for reasons that leads me to my next point.
Today's era of interlinking viral social media presents us with a powerful opportunity, and anyone who gains access to a computer - even for a second - can point a gun at the head of the universe if they wish to do so….you might even say that I'm doing it right now. You'd be right. Among the many topics that are hot for debate at the moment, feminism is certainly one that tops the list, and there are plenty of people talking about it.
Unlike the feminist movements of the 80's, however, the buzz and chatter surrounding this topic has become a part of everyday life to anyone that has a computer, tablet or smart phone. Youtube videos, Twitter posts and Facebook feeds are bursting with messages promoting gender equality. The noise we're making as a social community in regards to this issue isn't necessarily any louder than it was in previous decades, but there's certainly more of it going around.
What this means is that it's becoming tougher to stand out from the crowd, and this doesn't just ring true for the delivery of social or moral messages, but also the delivery of musical talent in general. There are so many artists flying around the digital platform, professional or otherwise, that it's becoming harder to rise above the crowd and be noticed.
Skimming over the artist's biography that features on her official web page, Aaron endeavours to lace a strong lesson in feminine empowerment through her music – much like Vag Halen. Yet while the underlying message laced in the belly of “Fire and Gasoline” may still have validity today, the delivery of Aaron's musical response to current affairs ultimately suffers at the hands of a bland and outdated palette, simply falling short of the mark.
Though Aaron openly advertises the presence of messages of feminine empowerment embedded in her music, its delivery in “Fire And Gasoline” is instantly recognisable as being less aggressive to that of her previous work with the likes of “Metal Queen”, “Whatcha Do To My Body” and “Sex With Love”. There's a noticeable lack of in-your-face musicianship, fiery vocal work and sword-wielding “babes” presented here, and unfortunately the content that replaces it is simply too weak to make impact. I've already said that this late 90's pop-rock style doesn't seem to carry much weight these days, and for me it's a crippling aspect to the effect of Aaron's release.
Add to this the fact that the faces of those fighting for feminism in today's society are current, highly relatable and highly accessible figures. People are following the examples set by the likes of Emma Watson, Katy Perry and Beyonce to name but a few, whether they endorse feminism or not. It's not just celebrities, either; normal, everyday people are being granted the ability to stand tall and deliver soapbox demonstrations on whatever subjects they wish. These people are figureheads of today's generation, and come complete with Youtube accounts, Twitter feeds and a constant tap into multiple forms of media. In return, their fans come complete with Youtube accounts, Twitter feeds and a constant tap into media, spreading the words of their idols through the sharing of articles, videos and posts.
Falling back to the opening paragraphs of this review, I should mentioned that for a number of reasons, I chose not to write about Vag Halen at the time. I can't deny that the message behind their music was delivered with a powerfully-charged blow, but at the time I didn't feel I had the skill to write an article that would cover the main issue. I've all but shattered my rule in writing this review, so I suppose I can give you my honest opinion of their performance, some four years later.
It was insane, shouty crap. Sure, the music might have been good but the man-hating, self-sexualising propaganda that oozing from the microphone between songs and bleeding through their stage antics was unbearably vicious. As a man, it's pretty tricky to cover the topic of feminism negatively without receiving accusations of being a misogynist, and I'll probably get a few comments from this review, but the truth is that Vag Halen took the concept of feminism to extreme heights. It was too much...and yet here I am, four years on...still talking about it. For one reason or another, better or worse, Vag Halen's performance made an impact on me. Equally, the constant bombardment of articles, blogs, videos and snippets of information that appears on my social media accounts, though largely ignored, is never far from thought.
On the other hand, “Fire And Gasoline” just isn't equipped with enough to effectively promote its message with any form of longevity. Though it will undoubtedly appeal to some (I'm yet to find a song or artist that isn't liked by at least one person), Aaron's latest release is crippled by simplistic innocence, outdated stylistic choices and a lack of social relevance. Musically, lyrically and socially it offers “too little, too late” for me to be relevant in the buzz of today's media shitstorm, filled with more vibrant, modern and relatable characters.
I hate writing negative reviews, and while I'd actually say that it's one of the easiest things to write as a music journalist, it never feels good to know that you're taking a huge shit on someone's hard work. I've had the fantastic opportunity to dive into the history of Lee Aaron's music, and I will close by saying that while much of her back catalogue is brimming with hard-hitting sass and vigour that makes it well worth a listen, “Fire And Gasoline” strikes me as having the misfortune of being crafted with weak, ageing foundations that just won't stand against the roaring waves of louder, more impacting material. Pick up the back catalogue where you can, but give this one a miss.