Concrete Blonde
IRS Records/EMI

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting album. It was released the year I graduated high school and at a time when I recall being immersed in novels by Anne Rice. ‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’ and the whole concept from album cover – with its sensual red roses and singular white one on a black backdrop, subtly blood splattered, and designed by singer-songwriter and bassist Johnette Napolitano –  to every single song written spoke to me, or more aptly put, called to me, and when I bring it out for a listen every once and a while, let’s just say the nostalgia of it feels enchanting and comforting. This album is apparently their first foray as a gothic rock band. Every single song on it is noteworthy and amazing. Johnette Napolitano, a Hollywood, California native, is now and was then a strong female idol for many, with such a hauntingly powerful, beautiful and memorable voice, and a lovely sultry gothic dark look. Along with guitarist and co-founder James Mankey, and drummer Paul Thompson from Roxy Music, the crepuscular trio delivered this, their most commercially successful and certified gold record.

‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’ starts with a growing eerie piercing cry of what I imagine to be bats infiltrating a pitch-black night sky, and then the creeping thick globular bass and smooth drums and haunting synth emerge, painting the picture of perhaps a dark and secluded cemetery, and then the deathly guitars start their razor-sharp guillotine descent into the underworld, which ring out higher when the beat picks up into the song’s main artery. The guitars continue with this sweeping Flanger effect on them that I just love, like velvet magic, and Napolitano starts her lovely singing, painting this mysterious and syrupy scene…

There’s a crack in the mirror
And a bloodstain on the bed
Oh, you were a vampire
And baby, I’m the walking dead

I got the ways and means
To New Orleans
I’m going down by the river
Where it’s warm and green
I’m gonna have a drink
And walk around
I got a lot to think about
Oh yeah

The song has got this enticing rhythm that you can’t help swaying and moving to. The production is dark smooth and simple, and the band being a trio makes their sound somewhat minimalistic but with a shiny glossy and bold clarity. Johnette’s singing is triumphant with its fluidity and range, Mankey’s guitar hooks are forever memorable, and Thompson’s drumming is bright and distinctive.

I love the heaviness of the next song – ‘The Sky is a Poisonous Garden’ – which blasts off right away, as well as just the title – it evokes poetry and a hot and swampy southern state climate. Is this a book title? It should be. The way the vocals are overdubbed and the piercing guitar riffing throughout that sounds cold and dark and crunchy, then a wonderful melodious solo. Johnette is a beautiful lyricist and that comes through wonderfully in this song…

Eleanor trembles.
Eleanor moans.
Somehow, this body is someone
She always has known
She cries tears on his chest
O so silent and slow-

She said please don’t go.
Please don’t go
And she cried and she died in his arms
And he cried nevermore
The moon is full, the stars are bright
And the sky is a poisonous garden

Caroline’ is slower and moody, with a groovy rhythm and echoing soundscape of guitar chords. You can really feel Johnette’s smokey and deep throaty vocal quality, but then she explodes to higher levels in the chorus. I love the overdubbed background vocals like an ethereal mist floating to heaven. Mankey’s guitar solos are really expressive and electric throughout the record and here too. Another song with incredible lyrics, a story about break-up, heart-ache and goodbyes.

Well, I hear you’re driving someone else’s car now
She said you came and took your stuff away
All the poetry and the trunk you kept your life in
I knew that it would come to that someday
Like a sad hallucination
When I opened up my eyes
The train had passed the station
And you were trapped inside
Yet I never wonder where you went
I only wonder why, I wonder why

Oh Caroline
Oh Caroline
Oh, oh Caroline

Darkening of the Light’ sways and caresses and puts you in a trance with its movements and echoing ghostly lyrics and sounds. Peter Buck from REM plays the Mandolin on this, traipsing plucky pretty trickles, and an eloquent slide guitar, tearful like whales communicating, played by Athens, GA, producer, John Keene.

Like a ghost (like a ghost)
Is the curtain (is the curtain)
In the white light of the morning.
Dancing (dancing)
In the morning (in the morning)
Are you there? Are you there?

And a shadow (and a shadow)
Like a sadness (like a sadness)
Falling all across the garden
Dancing (dancing)
In the garden (in the garden)
Are you there? Are you there?

Shine on friend. Goodnight
Why, then, the darkening of the light?

The Beast’ is a strong contender for my favorite song on this album.  A bright snare beat starts it off and the murky lurking rhythm sends shivers through my soul with its whirled up, unwound spiral unleashing volcano eruption of guitar riffs and hooks, and the quiet and subtle Flanger trickling effect is superb with Johnette’s masterful lyrics on the dark and terrifying languorous imagery. She sings of love, the side that is rancorous, torturous, and hurts.

The prey of the beast
Screamed bloody murder
The line is so fine
Between hoping and hurting
Former believers they beg for release
As love looking down on them
Smiles and picks his teeth
Trapped in between Heaven and hell
He knows all the secrets
You don’t want to tell
There’s nowhere to run
And there’s nowhere to hide
Love knows you all too well
He will find you

Love is the ghost
Haunting your head
Love is the killer
You thought was your friend
Love is the creature
Who lives in the dark
Sneak up and stick you
And painfully pick you apart

Love is the leech
Sucking you up
Love is a vampire
Drunk on your blood
Love is the beast
That will tear out your heart
Hungrily lick it
And painfully pick it apart

I love the way Johnette sings the beginning of ‘Joey’, the band’s biggest hit, that sweetly crooning way she gently coos “Joey…Baby… The contrast of that mellow tempo for me and the impassioned way she sings the other parts of the song makes it so great. The lyrics are simple and straightforward but heartfelt. Johnette said she wrote them in a cab on the way to the studio before recording it – she had it all in her mind ahead of time but just let it all out at that moment. Mankey’s jangly bright strumming switches to a creative and unforgettable hook right after the verse, and then splendid lyrical splashes flourish here and there.

Don’t get crazy
Detours, fences…
I get defensive….

I know you’ve heard it all before
So I don’t say it anymore
I just stand by and let you
Fight your secret war

And though I used to wonder why
I used to cry till I was dry
Still sometimes I get a strange pain inside
Oh Joey if you’re hurting so am I

Tomorrow, Wendy is a powerful and sad song as the finale on Bloodletting. It was written by Andy Prieboy, who was lead singer of the 80s Los Angeles band Wall Of Voodoo. It’s about an actual person named Wendy who was diagnosed with AIDS who decided to commit suicide rather than suffer the stigma. Johnette said in an interview, “…it’s basically her dialogue with herself as to the decision she’s going to make on her own. She’s making the decision on her own, it’s her one act of dignity in her life.” A lot of times whenever this song comes up on the record I end up stopping it because it just sounds so unbearably sad. But musically it is so masterful.  Mankey’s spark riffing outbursts in the chorus that sound like a mesmerizing steel and chrome drill piercing the atmosphere, Thompson’s smashing echoing drum pulse throughout, and the passion and love felt in Johnette’s singing is beyond measure, especially in the last verse.

It is complete, now
Two ends of time are neatly tied
A one-way street
She’s walking to end of the line
And there she meets
The faces she keeps in her heart and mind

They say, “Goodbye”
Tomorrow, Wendy you’re going to die
Tomorrow, Wendy you’re going to die

Underneath the chilly gray November sky
We can make believe that Kennedy is still alive
And we’re shooting for the moon
And smiling Jack is driving by

I told the priest
Don’t count on any second coming
God got his ass kicked
The first time he came down here slumming
He had the balls to come
The gall to die and then forgive us
No, I don’t wonder why
I wonder what he thought it would get us

Only God says, “Jump”
So I set the time
Cause if he ever saw it
It was through these eyes of mine
And if he ever suffered
It was me who did his crying

Although I’ve never really delved further into Concrete Blonde’s other releases, before and after Bloodletting, it may be time to so right now. After their initial 1993 breakup they got back together and broke up again a few times, they’ve been writing and producing songs in more recent years. Ten years ago, Shout! Factory released a remastered version of Bloodletting for its 20-year anniversary with several bonus tracks, and in 2012 the band released a new single “Rosalie” backed with “I Know the Ghost”, and delighted fans with a tour.  And Johnette Napolitano’s vibrancy and tough girl coolness to me is forever alive – she lives in the Mohave desert, does Tarot readings, has studied flamenco dancing and singing, has a whole slew of solo music out, has written a book, Rough Mix, volume #1 and #2, and in interviews I’ve read has a real biting wit and sarcasm that is so enthralling. Happy Anniversary, Bloodletting.