CNY Rock n Rag
“Not For The Innocent”, the third release from Syracuse rockers Caroline Blue offers up 12 new tracks, and with the exception of a few cuts on which former “Four Large Men” band mates guitarist Roy Coston, (Lovebone) and drummer extraordinaire, Monster Mike Merrifield (Dogs On Mars, One Hard Krank) lent some assistance; all of the tracks were written, arranged and performed by Wayne W. Johnson himself; no easy feat for any musician, indeed.
Like most bands, Caroline Blue has taken their share of slams, most of which have been aimed at Johnson’s less-than-stellar vocal ability, and the omnipresent KISS references, both in the music and the live performances as well. However, if even the harshest of CB critics take the time to give an honest listen, they would find that although WWJ may not be the strongest vocalist to hit a studio or stage, he certainly has the ability to craft some pretty catchy songs served up with a dose of solid musicianship.
Having been present during the majority of the recording sessions for “NFTI”, I had the opportunity to hear the songs “from the ground up” so to speak, and I think that this compilation definitely brings a welcome change from the past efforts. Songs from the band’s debut CD, such as “I Can’t Do It Tonight”, and “I’m No Angel” were good examples of good, classic rock tunes, but those songs were composed mostly by others, many years ago, and therefore represented a different time and place. On “Not For The Innocent”, Wayne’s songwriting hones in on exorcising the demons from a relationship gone bad, and in turn, Caroline Blue seems to be finding its own identity, without relying on the ghosts of rock bands past.
“Our Love Is Wasted”, bursts out of the gate with a driving guitar riff that gallops along at a frenzied pace, taking the listener for a wild ride right along with it until the abrupt climax. Unfortunately it also wastes no time in introducing the familiar Paul Stanley-esque screeching as well. Despite this, the song is infectious, and has definitely earned a spot on my “Songs You Can’t Drive 55 To” compilation.
“Love Me Or Leave Me” is one of the tracks Merrifield collaborated on, and is definitely tough to get out of your head once you hear it, but the more I listened to it, the more it became one of those songs you wish you could get out of your head. A year later, I find myself skipping it on the playback. It doesn’t mean that it won’t attract an audience, but so did Buckcherry’s “Crazy Bitch” and it took about 30 seconds for that song to overstay its welcome.
“Deny” (aka “Chef’s song”) has been one of WWJ’s favorites right from the pre-planning stages. He envisioned a song that would get people dancing, but the track is more of a slow rock “bump and grind” than a “dance” song and it just doesn’t do it for me. On the positive side, “Deny” is definitely another move towards experimenting with a variety of styles, and any song that allows the listener to hear Wayne’s vocal sounding, well, more like Wayne Johnson instead of Paul Stanley, is always a welcome change in my book.
“Pain” is now, and has been, my favorite Caroline Blue song for a long time. It’s been kicking around the live show for nearly two years, but with Monster Mike on the cans, the studio version gets the extra punch it was missing live. What can I say? This song kicks ass. The music’s great, vocals are awesome. Hands down, the best track on this disc. I never get sick of this one. I would really love to see the band pursue more of the edgier stuff using this vocal style.
“Stay” presents an appealing ballad/rock combo, offering up an acoustic balance in the set. Some nice guitar work throughout from WWJ, and although the vocals still wander off-pitch a bit, it’s a definite improvement from the “Paulscreech”.
“Out Of My Life (I Want You)" is a foray over to the dark side for “Mr.Whitebread” which leads him in a better direction, in other words, away from the KISS camp! Featuring an interesting combination of a softer vocal, combined with the “cookie monster” scream, and straight-from-the-breakup lyrics; the song is a fun change and a style I'd like to hear more of in future endeavors.
The machine gun guitar on “I’ve Seen The Light Tonight”, combined with the solid drumming of the mighty Monster Mike make this another winner on the musical side. There are a few faux pas on the lead vocal, and the background vocal (apparently done by Casper-the-Friendly Ghost) should have been left on the cutting room floor, but overall the song is another front runner. WWJ definitely has a talent for composing some simple, yet razor sharp guitar riffs that just stick in your mind long after the song is over.
“Won’t Be Home Tonight” just isn’t my cup of tea. I don’t know. Too slow, too morose, and I’m sorry, but the vocal should have been redone. “Nuff said.
I'm a bit on the fence about “Far Away From Home”. Another song in the rock/ballad/storytelling vein, the song is not bad, but it's not really that memorable either. This is another selection that has been in CB's set for quite some time now, and I figure if it hasn't hooked me yet, it never will. Once again, there are a couple places where the vocals wander off most notably at the end. At the time, I actually told WWJ I thought he should re-do part of the vocal but he didn’t agree. What do I know anyway?
“Dead Or Alive” is a lovely little kick ass rock-ditty about a stalker talking to his soon-to-be-victim. With some serious 80’s style guitar riffs, the song works its way into your consciousness before you know it. Once again a few sketchy parts, but who cares? Overall, the song rocks and it’s earned its way into my “best picks” for the disc.
“Inside” is my least favorite track on the collection. Caroline Blue has been playing this song live for quite some time now, and from day one, there was something wrong with this song. Something I just couldn’t put my finger on. Okay, the vocal is bad. There, I said it. I’m sorry but it is. Is he off-key or out of pitch? I don’t know; I just know he should have left this song off the CD until it’s fixed. Period. Granted, I’m not a musician, but I can sing and I know when someone’s singing, is off. (Including my own.)
“Nothing Will Satisfy You” is currently wrestling with “Pain”, as my favorite song on NFTI. Simple, straightforward, catchy, and dare I say, downright “bouncy”; this song is one you won’t be able to get out of your head. Once again, Monster Mike is absolutely killer on the drum arrangement, and I can’t get enough of the ending. WWJ has an uncanny talent for being able to envision songs and arrangements in his head long before he hits the studio and this song is a perfect example of that talent. He knew exactly what he wanted, down to the smallest nuance, and it turned out pretty much the way he wanted it. Not only that, I can really identify with these lyrics in ways that my friends and family will clearly understand. As a matter of fact I have recorded my own version of this song and it’s interesting to say the least. Don’t ask why, but for some reason, when I hear this, I can hear Pat Benatar singing it. Definitely destined to be a fan favorite.
Overall, I just want to say, despite my criticisms of WWJ’s vocals, and my not-so-subtle distain for the KISS influences, “Not For The Innocent” is a major accomplishment for one person and a giant step forward for Caroline Blue. If I seem to be over critical in the vocal department, it’s only because I think Wayne does himself a disservice when he moves into the “Paul Stanley” mimic. He and I have debated this issue to the max, and although he feels it’s just the “KISS influence”, I do not agree. An influence is one thing, it’s an entirely different thing to mimic another person and unfortunately it seems that the “ghost of Paul” has taken up residence in his brain. Songs like “Pain”, give us a totally fresh approach to his singing which showcases a stronger, edgier side that I quite like, and I think suits him well. The darker vocal style sounds much more natural and definitely something he should continue to develop. I know he has a lot of new ideas in the mix and if he carries on down some of these other paths, I think Caroline Blue will have some interesting music to offer down the road. If you’re a Caroline Blue fan, I think you’ll love it. If you’re a Caroline Blue critic, I think you should at least give a good listen. You might not like everything on it, but there are definitely flashes of light not to be denied, and that’s more than I can say for half the CD’s released by major artists these days.
Best Picks: “Pain”, “Nothing Will Satisfy You”, “Dead Or Alive”,
“Out of My Life (I Want You)”