MGF Reviews Night Ranger – Hole in the Sun

Night Ranger – Hole in the Sun
VH1 Classics (7/1/08)
Pop/Rock From Back When Pop/Rock Was Good

First Greg Norman at the British Open, now a new release from Night Ranger… I Love The ’80s! Even if it’s supposedly 2008, I Love The ’80s!

Seriously, I Love The ’80s (and if you’re wondering why I keep repeating that phrase, look at who’s releasing this and marvel at my blatant suck-up capabilities). It was my time, after all. My late teen years, my Bright College Days, the old Time Of Highest Sexual Potency thing. It was a good time for me. It was a slightly more innocent time when it came to music as well. Anything went, as you could tell from the genres that had their origins in the ’80s—everything from electronica to house to techno to hip-hop. Hell, we’d listen to anything. Go Home Productions has made a career out of creating mash-ups of ’80s material; honestly, check out their mash of Yaz’s “Don’t Go” and U2’s “Vertigo” and marvel at its magnificence.

And the artists have met the test of time, even the one-shots. Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting For a Star to Fall”, for instance, could easily be as big a hit today as back then. No one needs to mention the fact that U2 and Madonna are in the Hall of Fame and deserve to be there. Duran Duran’s still selling out tours. Cyndi Lauper’s making loads of money on the gay circuit. And now Night Ranger has put out its first recording in over a decade, aiming for a comeback that combines nostalgia with new thrills.

Unfortunately for Night Ranger, they’re one of those acts that engender slight embarrassment when you say you like them. I know that I feel that way when I admit it. All of the red faces can be broken down to two words: “Sister Christian”. Night Ranger is, unusually, in the same position as KISS, as their biggest and best-known hit is a sappy power ballad that’s uncharacteristic of their body of work. Fortunately, I hate “Sister Christian” (for that matter, I hate “Beth” too). My Night Ranger, the Night Ranger that I love, is the Night Ranger of “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me”, “You Can Still Rock in America”, and “The Secret of My Success”, one of those unexpectedly great movie themes from the era that you can listen to time and again and still love. It’s not as much of an earworm as John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”, of course, but listen to it once and it’ll be on your playlist for a long time…

…oh, God, playlists. If you told me twenty-five years ago that my car would have a CD player, I’d have done the equivalent of a “Duh”. Of course it would. But if you told me that I’d have a piece of equipment (1) the size of a postage stamp, (2) that cost me less than a full tank of gas, (3) that would hold enough music to let me drive from Chicago to Dallas and back without repeating a song once, (4) and would plug into my car stereo system, that’d be a harder sell. Yet, it’s in my car right now. And my car’s CD player will do MP3s as well, a definite bonus when I pointed the Silver Bullet in the direction of Kansas a couple of months ago to check if my stuff was still in storage. I Love The ’80s, but give me ’00s tech any day.

Now, what was I saying? Oh, yeah, Night Ranger has a new release. Jack Blades, bassist and guiding spirit of the group, has always been busy during periods of Night Ranger’s stagnation, either as a much-in-demand studio artist or his work with Damn Yankees. So bringing the group back together meant that they could go from a standing start. The challenge here is showing that they’re not merely a nostalgia act. They need to show vitality and energy as we go into the Teens. Have they done it?

“Tell Your Vision”, the lead track, is a definite statement that they’re not going for nostalgia. This is a song that My Chemical Romance will probably end up covering (and butchering). It’s hard-driving and hard-rocking with a guitar solo from Brad Gillis that will provide a test of all of Eddie Van Halen’s third-generation descendants. It puts its foot down and doesn’t let up. If the kiddies still have that image of “Sister Christian” in their heads after that, they probably ended up going to the bonus tracks and hearing the Unplugged version of said song first. That’s their problem. Don’t make the same mistake.

“Drama Queen”, though, is very much in the nostalgia vein. Not only is the dual-guitar solo directly from Night Ranger’s heyday, but the whole song is straight out of the John Lydon songbook. The lyrics are comparable to “Seventeen” or “Satellite” (especially the latter), and the instrumentation is pure early PiL. Your opinion of this song is going to be based on how you feel about that material. I believe that most people here know that I would willingly bow down in front of Rotten and lick his toes clean, so you can probably figure out that I enjoyed it.

“You’re Gonna Hear from Me” continues the nostalgia. Given the intro, I was utterly shocked when the vocals came in at the 35-second mark and it wasn’t Adam Ant. The terrace chants, the deep drum tracks… it’s so “Antmusic” that I want to find some pancake and Crazy Color. Honestly, if you’ve never listened to Adam and the Ants, after hearing this track, go out and get some and hear what the original was like. You’ll fall in love instantly. Caveat: don’t grab any of Adam’s solo material other than Friend or Foe if you want music in this vein. His stuff after that is… uh, wonderful, but it’s not the target here.

After the wallowing in nostalgia, “Whatever Happened” brings us back to present time. Unfortunately, the present time it brings us back to is that of Kelly Clarkson. I wouldn’t call it a theft of “Since U Been Gone”, but “Whatever Happened” is even in the same key and same tempo as that song. You could literally wipe the vocal tracks, overlay Clarkson’s, and it would take only a minimum of remixing to turn it into a Clarkson track. So, I hate it, right? Not necessarily. There’s a rule I call the One Good Track Principle. Simply stated, any musical act that you hate always has one good track that you enjoy. Here’s my list, necessarily partial because I hate a LOT of musical acts, that prove this axiom:

Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Pearl Jam – “Evenflow”, for all that it’s a ripoff of “Aqualung”
Soundgarden – “Black Hole Sun”
N’Sync – “Bye Bye Bye” and Justin Timberlake – “SexyBack” (Timberlake’s love of golf slightly mediates my dislike)
Ace of Base – “Beautiful Life”
Backstreet Boys – “I Want It That Way” (the harmonies are simply incredible)
Nickelback – “Photograph” (sappy, insult to Def Leppard, but again, those harmonies…)
Fall Out Boy – “Thanks for the Memories” (you know that normally I’ll defend Chicago bands to the death, but these guys are indefensible)
My Chemical Romance – “Welcome to the Black Parade” (if you ignore the middle eight, where Gerard Way sounds like a chipmunk whose testicles are caught in a vise)
Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone”

So I don’t necessarily hate “Whatever Happened”. I’m just, well, disappointed that they’d go there, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, they didn’t take the opportunity to take the next turn-off from that particular highway. Yes, I know, “Sister Christian” was their biggest hit. Yes, I know, their audience is expecting there to be a big power ballad, preferably piano-based like said tune. Yes, Jack Blades has shown that he has a great feel for the genre. But “There Is Life” isn’t “High Enough” and drummer Kelly Keagy isn’t Tommy Shaw in terms of vocals. There’s a good middle eight and guitar solo here, but it’s stuck in the middle of five and a half minutes of power ballad. Look, guys, I know you’re playing to your potential audience, but I’ve spent twenty years trying and failing to justify power ballads in defense of ’80s music. I can’t keep using Poison’s “Something to Believe In” to do NO Us.

“Rockstar” is a bit of a quandary. Self-referencing songs about being a musical star are a genre in and of themselves, going to back to at least “Norwegian Wood”, if not further. Songs about rock stars being jerks while on tour in Japan are so common they’re virtually a sub-genre. This, unfortunately, is not a good example of such a song. They’re trying too hard here for something both nostalgic and modern. It’s barely-adequate filler, and its placement on the album shows it.

If this were an old-style vinyl disk, the title track would have been the lead cut on the second side. That’s one big reason I dislike CDs. You get that little period of silence while you flip over the record, and get to treat the second side as fresh material. The lead track on the second side is critical to setting up the rest of the recording. Sequencing of tracks used to be a true art form, given this fact. That magic is gone, really. Honestly, if this had been on vinyl, the sequencing would be perfect. “Hole in the Sun” is a perfect lead track for a Side 2 that now doesn’t exist. It’s a good old-fashioned rocker that plays to the group’s strengths, yet adds enough modern touches in order to avoid anachronism. The title is a nod to Soundgarden, and you can hear a few Soundgarden flourishes in the instrumentation. The lyrics are pure ’80s hedonism, with call-outs to Memphis and New Orleans. As a whole, the song is ersatz Aerosmith, which is not an insult when done by a group as accomplished as Night Ranger. In fact, I’d love to hear Aerosmith cover it. They’d do a bang-up job.

“Fool in Me” is a nice change of pace. A mostly-acoustic slow-tempo number, its strong harmony vocals provide a nice “sherbet break” given its sequencing on the disk. Nothing really distinctive, but definitely a candidate for release as a single. It’d get a lot of lite-rock radio play, and, again, that’s no insult.

When you name a song “White Knuckle Ride”, it had better come through. This one does. Michael Lardie’s minimalist keyboards provide a great basis for the remainder of the instruments (Lardie left the group after recording and has been replaced by Christian Cullen). The drive of the guitars is appropriate. The biggest problem of the song is that the vocals are pushed too much to the front of the mix. Burying them a little inside of the guitars may have been more appropriate and given the track a bigger and better drive. It’s only a minor complaint, though.

“Revelation 4AM” is the only track written by all three core members of Night Ranger. It’s also the track where they expose themselves to charges of nostalgia. The first verse name-checks Elton John (and Jack and Coke). It’s the song that sticks the closest to a classic verse-chorus-verse structure. The instrumentation of the verses display an obvious influence; it sounds uncannily like Blind Faith’s “I Can’t Find My Way Home”, enough so that I wonder what Steve Winwood would make of the vocals (hmmmmm, Winwood on lead vocals and keyboards, Blades on bass and background vocals… Jack, get on the phone to Tommy and Nuge and find a great drummer, because you’ve got a new edition of Damn Yankees there for the taking). As for the track, the drums are a little too heavy on the choruses, but otherwise, it’s a strong mid-tempo number.

The disk per se closes with two numbers composed by fired guitarist Jeff Watson (he’s since been replaced by Joel Hoekstra… hey, a former Turtle!). “Wrap It Up” is a pretty cliched guitar-driven rocker, making you wonder if anything of value was lost with Watson. Unfortunately, given the closing track, “Being”, something was lost. Kelly Keagy does his best lead-vocal job on this disk on this acoustic/keyboard up-tempo ballad. It’s quite reminiscent of the stronger filler tracks on late-’80s/early-’90s Chicago disks (this mention is what we in the business call “foreshadowing”; watch this space for my next review). It’s definitely a lite-rock single candidate and should get some airplay. It deserves it, especially since it’s in a genre that Night Ranger isn’t noteworthy in.

Since this is a VH1 Classics release, obviously we have to have some Unplugged as bonus tracks. There are two. The first is “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me”. Uh, no. No. No. No. There are just certain tracks that do not apply themselves to the Unplugged treatment. This is one of them. The song was done perfectly the first time. It needs the driving rhythm guitars and keyboard flourishes to work. This doesn’t. Of course, I love “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” so much that any treatment like this could be considered an abomination. The other song chosen, however, does fit in with an Unplugged treatment. Unfortunately, it’s “Sister Christian”. If all traces of that song were suddenly wiped from existence, I wouldn’t mourn.

All in all, Hole in the Sun is a strong comeback effort punctuated with moments of weakness and saddled with extras that don’t enhance the marketability, unless you’re one of those people who love “Sister Christian”, in which case, I don’t want to know who you are. In general, it successfully looks back to Night Ranger’s strongest commercial period and reestablishes them as a force. It’s a good gateway to get people into looking into what they were doing twenty years ago. There isn’t a track here that’s going to be as timeless as what they were doing then, but it’s worthy. They could have done far worse than this. The name and legacy of Night Ranger are more enhanced than depreciated. Thus, mission accomplished.


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