KID ROCK "Rock N Roll Jesus" (Top Dog/Atlantic Records) 3 stars
Since "Devil Without a Cause" propelled him out of Detroit clubs and into the national consciousness, Kid Rock has churned out a series of what you might call dust discs: albums colorful and lively enough to stir fans' interest, but not remarkable enough to earn longtime listening. They got bought, they got played ... then wound up gathering dust on a shelf.
The Michigan star may escape that fate with "Rock N Roll Jesus," his first studio effort since 2003 and his stickiest collection of songs in nearly a decade. That doesn't mean the album is some transcendent creative masterpiece, despite what Rock himself appears to believe, given the album's occasionally earnest tone. But within the Kid Rock universe, amid the expectations and standards that operate there, "Rock N Roll Jesus" is a standout record.
The album, a celebration of classic rock and of Rock's own distinct redneck-fab world, is the most soundly designed, thought-out record since "Devil" in 1998. If nothing else, the album's early stretch - led by the funk-touched title track and the message song "Amen" - reveals work as tuneful as anything he's ever put to tape.
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This is Kid Rock on a classic-rock bender. Robust drums and brown-toned guitar leads chug along. The shredded vocal that Rock has steadily mastered since he morphed from suburban rapper into hard-rock singer is more finely tuned, the full-throttle shouts giving way to more mobile melodies.
More than anything, it all sounds familiar - brimming with the sorts of catchy hooks and concert-ready choruses that have long appealed to classic-rock listeners. And while that accessibility is the album's biggest strength, it's also the greatest vulnerability. In summoning a vintage vibe, Rock risks accusations that he's committed an easy cut-and-paste act.
Nowhere is that more glaring than the beach-bummy "All Summer Long," a writing collaboration with old friend Uncle Kracker, which sits atop the well-worn piano riff of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" and laces itself up with a Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar lick. Sympathetic listeners might say Rock is simply applying hip-hop's sampling culture to a rock `n' roll format; the less forgiving will charge him with taking shortcuts.
Besides some lyrical lifting on "Don't Tell Me U Love Me" (from Steve Miller and Jim Croce, among others), the borrowing is more subtle elsewhere. Produced with a hand from Green Day maestro Rob Cavallo, the album plays up standard Rock themes - women, whiskey, wild times - through a batch of fun, rollicking songs. As always, it's about escaping the hard life to find the good life through music that's larger than life.
There are dismissible moments: "Sugar," the album's lone old-school rap tune, is a throwaway cut; "Blue Jeans and a Rosary" is a clumsy take on Seger-style redemption; "So Hott," the sex-drenched lead single, isn't just the worst song on the album, it's possibly the worst song of Rock's two-decade career. The chintzy "Half Your Age," presumably a jab at ex-gal Pamela Anderson, is wisely positioned in an easily skippable spot: at the end of the disc.
But "Rock N Roll Jesus" is an otherwise solid effort - and an album that will come as welcome relief for fans who'd like to get some long-term mileage out of their Kid Rock records.