Pawn Shop Guitars
Gilby Clarke's tenure in Guns n' Roses was unremarkable - the only recorded evidence of his playing is some rhythm guitar on The Spaghetti Incident that exactly duplicates Slash's lines (and what, pray tell, is the point of having two guitars if they play the exact same parts? At least Izzy and Slash always provided some rhythmic tension.) So it's a bit of a surprise that his solo career shows the most interesting personality of all the Gunners - Izzy was faceless, Slash was monotonous, and Duff was unfocused bordering on incoherent, but Gilby is intelligent, melodic, craftsmanlike and humble. In fact, as I've aged, I find myself listening to Gilby Clarke more than Guns n' Roses.
Pawn Shop Guitar is a major label album, recorded before Axl give Gilby the boot, apparently for wanting to get paid, and it features all the members of GnR as it was then constituted, but those guest spots are not the high points. What stands out instead, are the riffs and hooks - this guy really knows his way around the guitar. Check out the contrasting low tremolo and slide lines in "Cure Me…Or Kill Me", and the beautiful phrasing of the arpeggios in "Black." The melodies are full of catchy phrases, from the chorus of "Pawn Shop Guitars" to the verse of "Skin and Bones." However, there's nothing particularly original here; the rhythms are all a variety of shuffle or hard rock pounding, and the chords mostly fall into the I-IV-V pattern.
A sore point is the lyrics; while Gilby has the occasional moment of humor, such as "Tijuana Jail", or personal introspection, as in "Pawn Shop Guitars," there are too many times when he's curtly chauvinist or unthinkingly brags about his substance abuse (at the same time bemoaning it in others). I wince at lines like "baby, won't you shut up, you've already got me hooked."
Veteran LA scenester Waddy Wachtel produced this album, and it's curiously sterile-sounding; while the guitars have a pretty good tone but no definition, the drumming sounds awfully stiff (with the exception of Duff McKagan, of all people) and the vocals aren't well integrated into the sound - and given Gilby's lack of range, that's a problem.
As for the guest list: Slash plays his usual pentatonic goop and nearly ruins "Cure Me" (does he even know how to recognize a modal composition?), Axl sings an off-key harmony on a dull cover of "Dead Flowers", and Matt Sorum predictably contributes powerful but unswinging drumming here and there. Duff comes through with a winner, drumming and harmonizing to great effect on "Jail Guitar Doors."
Pawn Shop Guitars is pretty standard hard-rock fare, but it'll keep your brain occupied while your toes are tapping.
By now relegated to an indie release, Gilby gets a lower-rent production (by himself and some unfamous buddies) that actually serves him better. The influences are a bit broader this time around - incorporating some glam and boogie into the mix - while his singing is improved and the lyrics show that he's been doing some thinking.
The cover of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" is a low point - should anyone without Lennon's vocal chops even be allowed near this song? - but Bowie's "You Better Hang on to Yourself" is even better than the original (Clarke may not be a great singer, but at least he doesn't sound like he's got a nose full of snuff the whole time). The record's sound is more cohesive, like it was cut live in the studio, so the drumming is freer and the bass really locks into these grooves, while the guitars have a nice solid bite.
Clarke's years of excess seem to be catching up to him, and he's actually got some useful things to say about it. "Wasn't Yesterday Great" has an ironic chorus over an unfortunately mis-resolved hook that plays off the litany of drug-induced disasters in the verses, while "Zip Gun" speeds over a growling riff with its sympathy-for-the-thug lyrics, and "Higher" has an ambiguous refrain with a modestly arching melody.
Elsewhere, the price of fame (ho hum) is explored, and Gilby doesn't sound much worse for his years under the shadow of Bret Michaels. "Mickey Marmalade" and "Bluegrass Mosquito" are pleasantly psychedelic meditations on the art of small-club performance, and "It's Good Enough for Rock and Roll" manages to squeeze every cliché - musically and lyrically - from the Rolling Stones' mid-70's output into three minutes.
My favorite, though, is "Punk Rock Pollution" - with a decently singable melody over the catchiest riff on the album, he rails against everything that's happened to his brand of rock, then joins in the revolution with the punkiest singing of his life.
That's what I like best about Gilby Clarke's records: he's into making rock and roll and all the ego and pomposity go out the window. Above all, Gilby Clarke is a rock and roll mensch.
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