Okay, I admit it -- as a rock critic, I feel conflicted about Aerosmith. In fact, whenever someone asks me what I think about these Beantown boys, I have a standard one-liner reply: "I feel the same way about Aerosmith that I feel about the Rolling Stones: I like the guitarists a lot better than the singer."
Indeed, some folks think that Steven Tyler's adolescent prancing, preening and jiving and his nails-on-the-chalkboard vocal screech are a "real hoot." But I'm not one of them.
No, for me, Aerosmith is all about Joe Perry's lead guitar and, to an only slightly lesser degree, Brad Whitford's second guitar. This is a band that sounds best not when the focus is on Tyler's caterwauling and the bombastic production, but on Perry and Whitford's guitars. especially when they're playing them tough, fast and lean and, beyond that, either gritty, sleazy or downright filthy. The same could be said, actually, of the Stones and Keith Richards/Ron Wood.
But I don't want to go too far with the Aerosmith-Stones comparison, which has always been a superficial one -- because, when Aerosmith was forging its nascent rocking-blues sound in the early 1970s, its ears were way more attuned to Fleetwood Mac and the Yardbirds than they were to the Stones, who by then were broadening into something more like "pop."
But back to Perry's guitar being a lean, grimy riff machine. If Aerosmith is at its best when it strips away the arena-pop trappings -- and let Perry and Whitford get dirty -- then Aerosmith would appear to be on something of a roll. Its last two discs, the all-covers Honkin' On Bobo and the live Rockin' the Joint, were its rocking-est and most satisfying in at least a dozen years.
On both discs, the band cuts the crap and slashes out a locomotive rocking-blues rumble that recaptures the urgency of some of its best '70s cuts ("Mama Kin" and "Train Kept a Rollin'" come to mind), sidestepping the empty power-ballad bombast of, say, "Dream On" and the novelty-song rib-nudge of "Dude Looks Like a Lady."
And Perry was happy to oblige.
"A lot of times, your intentions are to get that lean, gritty sound, and when you listen back to the tapes, it ends up not sounding like that at all," says Perry, who joins his bandmates onstage at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Thursday.
"There are just so many variables when you go into the studio any more," says Perry, during a phone interview from a road stop in Hartford, retaining a blue-collar-Boston accent that's still the second-coolest thing about him. "These days, it's so easy to get a so-called 'perfect-sounding' record, so the tendency is to do that just because you can. Back in the day, we were always striving to get that great take. But now it's so easy to do that because you can just keep massaging things, but you can also end up massaging it until it's dead.
"So the trick is knowing when to stop," Perry continues. "It's too easy to sterilize the song too much. I mean, there's a lot of young artists today who 'get it,' and who've put out some great stuff, and there are others who put out crap -- and, you know, we've done both."
On Honkin' On Bobo, the band's last studio album, Perry and Whitford were in hog heaven, as the band unleashed some rocking-blues nuggets like "Road Runner," "Baby Please Don't Go," "I'm Ready" and "Eyesight to the Blind." But, Aerosmith being Aerosmith, and Tyler being Tyler, they sleazed 'em up sufficiently to avoid the too-reverent trap that some Brit-blues classicists have fallen into. And they also toss in a few obscurities. But Honkin's best moments are uptempo tracks -- "Road Runner," "Shame, Shame, Shame" and "Stop Messin Around" -- or deep-blues cuts like "Back Back Train," where Perry and Whitford serve up a salacious guitar sound that's scrappy, snarling, and greasier than a plate of day-old ham hocks.
"I like to think we played those tunes the way we would have back in the '70s," says Perry, without going so far to acknowledge that, despite Aerosmith's good commercial fortunes in the 1990s, the '70s still remain as the band's true creative peak. On Rockin' the Joint, meanwhile, the band turned in a similarly tough-sounding set, including another inspired cover, a raucous and rowdy take on Fleetwood Mac's classic "Rattlesnake Shake."
But Perry won't go so far as to say that the band has permanently re-committed to the grittier sound that won 'em its audience in the '70s. On their next disc, due out in the spring, "We've finished about seven songs so far," says Perry. "We're using that approach where it's appropriate. But with one thing that we've learned, being together as long as we have, is that, if you're gonna sell records, you have to keep an ear to the sounds that are happening right now. And the idea is to be right there with it, while it's happening."
However, for those gritty-guitar freaks who like their Perry straight up, pop-free and no Tyler, Perry also released a self-titled solo disc last year and it's just as grizzled and ornery as Honkin' -- with Perry handling all the guitars, vocals, basses and keys.
"I write by myself a lot, just riffs and stuff, not songs that are intended to be fed into the commercial pipeline, just things I do 'cause they're a lot of fun to write and record, just a reflection of the music that I like," says Perry.
"But I realized that if I ran my car off the road tomorrow and hit a tree, I wouldn't have any completed songs, I'd just have a lot of half-finished demos," he says. "So I wanted to finish 'em no matter what, so that I had a completed piece of work. I thought about bringing some other people in to sing and play, but as it was taking shape, I had such a good time making it that I thought, 'Well, if this is gonna be a solo‚ record, I might as well go all the way with it.'"
Aerosmith will be performing at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater w/ Mötley Crüe; Sept. 21; 7:30pm; $45-150; see www.ticketmaster.com for more info.