First and foremost, Talkhouse Contributing Writer Liam Wilson is a good vibe technician. He’s known to moonlight as an avid psychonaut and enjoys occasional visits with his worldly possessions in Philadelphia. He spends most of his time wandering Earth in an endless pursuit of a clearer understanding of all things bass-frequency related with his band the Dillinger Escape Plan. Follow him on: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
That’s show biz!
So, Winger has a new album.
Winger? The Winger whose battleship Mike Judge almost single-handedly sunk with Beavis and Butthead’s nerdy neighbor Stewart’s self-flagellating choice of t-shirt? The Winger whose frontman’s visage was strafed with darts by Lars Ulrich in Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” video? Yes, that Winger. Maybe I’m showing my age here, but I can recall a time before all that when a hair-sprayed form of androgynous “metal” ruled the airwaves. Winger were considered pretty impressive and even catchy by my school cafeteria table’s standards; guitar icon Reb Beach’s scorching neo-classical shred and drummer Rod Morgenstein’s arrhythmic rock pocket just narrowly eclipsed the Casanova-ness of Kip Winger’s bass-wielding ballet moves.
As a pre-tween, I fondly recall waiting for their 1988 self-titled tape (and nine others just like it) to arrive in the mail from Columbia House, at the bargain rate of $.01. (I know some of you are probably thinking that I got ripped off.) I honestly thought my interest would have succumbed to the same fate as that well-worn and long-lost cassette, but for whatever unexplainable reason (and trust me, I’ve had to try to explain it to a lot of people who’ve heard my party playlists), my enjoyment of this not-so-guilty pleasure hasn’t really dissipated over the years; if anything, they’ve endured the test of time in much the same ways that certain harder-hitters by Ozzy or Whitesnake have.
If you’re old enough to remember when Winger was all over rock radio and MTV, tell me: when was the last time you heard, or better yet, actually listened to, one of Winger’s early hits? Go dime tracks like “Seventeen,” “Headed for a Heartbreak,” “Madalaine” or “Hungry.” Now look me in the face (my photo is above) and tell me that’s not some pretty bad-ass riffage. For me, those songs represent a quartet of that era’s highest-caliber pants-package-rockin’ anthems; to suggest that all those hair-centric bands sounded the same is, to me, a form of rock & roll racism.
So we’ve traveled 26 strange years into the future from that debut, and Winger has just dropped their sixth album Better Days Comin’. I have to admit, this album probably won’t chart on my best of 2014 list, but let’s keep things in their proper perspective. It’s not a groundbreaking record. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a damn good Winger record that should appeal to most fans of hard rock. I knew I probably wouldn’t love it, but I really didn’t even expect to even like it as much as I do without some extra handicapping for time passed. Disclaimer: There is an intrinsic cheese factor that I consider par for the course, but for me that’s part of the charm, and with that stated, Winger still tastes more like an expensive Gorau Glas than cheap Cheez Whiz. Although these songs come off slightly more straightforward and thinly sliced than their typically lean portions, there are no real clunkers and only a few cringe-worthy cuts served up on this board.
I was kinda expecting these old strays to basically roll over without trying any new tricks, but Better Days Comin’ bursts open with a trio of in-your-face rock jams that can’t be denied. And what they’ve fetched on the standout slab “Tin Soldier” is an uncharacteristically fierce prog-rocker that sated my jaded appetite with its seamless time signature shifts. Truth be told, I’m a sucker for Beach’s legato-tapped solos, but it’s hard not to completely ignore his contributions on “Tin Soldier” when drummer Morgenstein is laying down some serious chops. These are the musician moments I’m a glutton for, when they unleash that youthful fire that sets Winger apart from most of their bygone contemporaries. Other than the requisite power ballads “Ever Wonder” and “Be Who You Are, Now” the only real testosterone level-lowering moment is the title track’s slap-bass-y pre-chorus, which casts bit of a cruise ship vibe on the party; the hooting and hollering take things a bit too far over the adult contemporary edge. But, to be honest, I braced myself for a lot more whiffs of that aforementioned cheese than this.
I recently heard this Radiolab program about Beethoven’s tempo markings being shockingly fast and how most conductors won’t even play this stuff as written. Yet, when performed at the prescribed tempi, Beethoven’s music takes on a whole new shape, more akin to punk rock or metal than any stereotypically “classical” idioms. What I took from that was how much I, too, respond strongly to players striving to perform just out of the reach of their ability, versus comfortably nailing a piece of music flawlessly. Something about that rings true here too.
Every track on Better Days Comin’ is crafted with easily digestible ingredients, but maybe it’s all a bit too formulaic for its own good. At worst, it sounds a little too “Mel Bay guitar book,” a little too scratch-resistant. Although all the tracks are rock solid, it simply lacks the cock-swinging swagger of their younger selves or any real edginess to cut your teeth on. I’d rather be considered a visionary than an expert, but that’s just me, and it’s indicative of what I’m more likely to treat my hands and ears to when given a choice. With great musical prowess comes greater responsibility, and Winger isn’t pushing boundaries the way they could be when blessed with this much talent. For a band whose career had been shelved almost overnight after grunge hit, I’d wager that they have nothing to lose, and for that I’d have predicted that they’d take a few more risks. On Better Days Comin’, Winger just seems a little too safely poised within their own comfort zone, comfortable with maintaining their position versus attaining new ground.
If there’s one thing we can learn from the fables and follies of Winger, it’s that any advertising isn’t necessarily good advertising. I’m sure these days, they aren’t as interested in singing songs about seducing someone’s underage daughter as they are in avoiding someone deflowering theirs, and I’m grateful they aren’t trying to maintain a false identity well into middle age. Instead, we find Winger sticking to their strengths: writing genuinely “classic” — in the truest sense of the word — rock gems at a time when it couldn’t be more unhip to do so. Better Days Comin’ stands in stark contrast against everything else that supposedly “rocks” these days, which seems ever more quantized, homogenized, robotic and neutered. Like the T-top Camaro IROC-Z quietly rusting away in your parents’ garage, at least the stereo still works.