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Talk Dirty to Us: Poison fans have always loved the band's glammed-out, sexed-up, feel-good brand of sleazy rock & roll.

Grin and Bear It

Still-raunchy Poison returns with long-awaited 'Crack a Smile' album

By Sarah Quelland

MUSIC WRITERS aren't supposed to like Poison. But despite the band's demise with the lifeless 1993 release, Native Tongue, its old albums have remained a guilty pleasure for me. Now, after years of wrangling and delay, Poison has finally released Crack a Smile ... and More! (Capitol Records). The new album and the prospect of a summer tour (Bret Michaels, Rikki Rockett, Bobby Dall and maybe even original guitarist C.C. DeVille are scheduled to stop at Shoreline Amphitheatre on Aug. 11 with Cinderella, Dokken and Slaughter) have made me giddy with anticipation.

It took less than a year to wear out my first cassette of Poison's debut, Look What the Cat Dragged In. That was in 1987, and Poison ruled the charts with its glammed-out ambiguous sexuality and raunchy L.A. cock rock. Poison combined slinky hell-cat appeal with sleazy rock & roll, and their lyrics were charged with innuendo and double-entendres.

Explicit singles like "Talk Dirty to Me" and "I Want Action" were the stuff sex-starved teenagers' dreams are made of, while the broken-hearted ballad "I Won't Forget You" struck a solemn promise that resonated deeply in the hearts of those who had loved and lost (then again, maybe it was just another cheesy power ballad).

Although Poison was leading the way in the glam-rock sect of heavy metal, many critics regarded the crew as a throwaway with little promise. Lashing out with the single "Nothin' But a Good Time," Poison's sophomore album, 1988's Open Up and Say ... Ahh, went platinum within two weeks of its release. So what if Poison was a feel-you-up, feel-good party band--obviously, record buyers weren't complaining.

The music industry is a fickle business, though, and 1991's Swallow This Live marked the decline of Poison. The band became passé that year, engulfed by the alternative wave of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Still, Poison remained unapologetic for its sexy material and soaring power ballads.

Judging by Crack a Smile ... and More!, which debuted at a not-so-staggering but respectable No. 131 in the Billboard Top 200, the band still refuses to bow down. Recorded and canned in 1994, Crack a Smile became known as the lost Poison album. Retitled Crack a Smile ... and More!, the 20-track CD features songs and outtakes from Crack a Smile, B-sides, an unfinished demo and four classics from a 1990 MTV Unplugged session. It's the band's finest work since Open Up and Say ... Ahh.

Perhaps it is a blessing this album was released now rather than in 1994. The songs are too frivolous for the scowling alternative-grunge era, but the time of self-important statement rock seems to be over. People are tired of being so serious, puritanical and blasé all the time.

THE KIDS WHO GREW UP influenced by bands like Poison are the grownups creating the new music and the record execs making the decisions. Glam and glitter rock are infiltrating various genres of music, and metal--albeit in an updated form--is dominating again. Chart-topping musicians like Korn's Jonathan Davis and Kid Rock revel in the raunchy L.A. days of yore with porn-star accessories and bad-boy attitudes, bringing the tawdry scene full-circle and back into vogue.

The most interesting thing about this new Poison album is that it's been locked in a time capsule untouched by trends for six years. And unlike Native Tongue, which was a forced, plodding disaster (the single "Stand" proved that crotch rock and gospel choirs don't mix), Smile plays like a spontaneous jam session.

The album wastes no time getting started, kicking off with Michaels' bluesy harmonica and a dirty groove on "Best Thing You Ever Had" (which includes the memorable line "You may not be religious/but I'll make you see God if you give me a try"). "Sexual Thing" struts the same bold line as "Look What the Cat Dragged In."

One of the highlights is a cover of Dr. Hook's "Cover of the Rolling Stone," a seemingly drunken jam that gets downright swampy with Michaels' touch. The bouncy potential hit "No Ring, No Gets" proves to be the catchiest song, echoing Flesh and Blood's "Unskinny Bop" in its absurdity.

The most inspired song is "Tragically Unhip," a self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek jab that finds Poison taking shots at the music business ("My record company says blow my brains out my head, I'll make the cover of every magazine") and itself ("I keep a poster of Kiss on my wall/ I still curse and smoke and drink and toke and make love in the back of my car ... I cannot pretend and I will not defend why this good ol' boy's so tragically unhip.").

VH-1 recently put the Poison Behind the Music rockumentary in heavy rotation, indicating a resurging interest in the band (or at least high ratings for the show). I grew up plastering my walls with posters of Bret and Co., so I won't even pretend to be objective. But even if it's just for nostalgia's sake, I think we're ready for the return of unabashedly flamboyant, happy-get-lucky rock & roll. I think we're ready for music to be fun again. And I can't think of anyone better to lead the party than Poison.

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From the April 26-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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