Forgotten Series: Ugly Kid Joe – Menace to Sobriety (1995)

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Ugly Kid Joe very likely doomed their career with the way they came on to the scene. First there was the name, a jab at second- or third-tier hair metal act Pretty Boy Floyd. Then, there was the song that introduced them to the world — the minor novelty hit “Everything About You” — a song singer Whitfield Crane would later tell audiences he hated but played because people wanted to hear it.

The band’s debut EP As Ugly as They Wanna Be (another play, this time on 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be) was largely like that song — fun, but goofy and juvenile with some pretty cool funk metal underpinnings. Follow-up full-length America’s Least Wanted (a play on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted”) delivered much of the same, though the band scored a hit with a fairly straight cover of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” and upped its metal cred a bit with an appearance by Judas Priest’s Rob Halford on “Goddamn Devil.”

By the time Menace to Sobriety (yet another pop culture nod) was released, the novelty had probably worn off for most, and the name of the album certainly promised more of the same. But, interestingly, this album showed a bit more mature band with an evolving sound. There were hints of a more serious streak in some of the songs, and tinges of the grunge and alternative rock scenes that had taken over at the time. It stands, at least in my mind, as easily the best album in the group’s catalog.

The shift is first really felt on “Tomorrow’s World,” one of this album’s standout tracks. The song was a brooding number, driven by the bass of Cordell Crockett. Vocalist Whitfield Crane’s normal party-rock vocals took on a more menacing tone for the tune, and there were definite undertones of classic Black Sabbath. It’s quite possibly the best thing the band ever recorded. That darker, brooding theme continues in places throughout, particularly on “Suckerpath,” later in the album.

“C.U.S.T.” could have been a precursor to the rap-rock that rose in the late 1990s. It opens with a Red Hot Chili Peppers-influenced funk rock sound and Crane delivering his lyrics in a rap. The lyrical content itself is a bit juvenile and in line with the band’s earlier work, but it’s a fun tune.

My favorite track from the record may be “Milkman’s Son.” It’s a semi-ballad with just a little bit of Southern rock flavor, and maybe one of Crane’s best vocal performances. Though you might expect something a little goofy from the song title, it’s actually one of the more thoughtfully written and sincere songs on the album.

The same could be said of ballad “Cloudy Skies” which straddles the line between Southern rock and 1990s alternative. It’s a song that, admittedly, I hated at the time the album came out but has grown on me over the years.

We’re still dealing with Ugly Kid Joe, so there’s certainly going to be some of that late ’80s, early ’90s party music. “Jesus Rode a Harley” definitely wouldn’t have been out of place on As Ugly as They Wanna Be or America’s Least Wanted, but the tune has a great chorus hook. “V.I.P.” spouts out some juvenile anger, but again with a quite memorable melody and hook that will have you bobbing your head and singing along. And let’s not forget “Oompa” which opens with nod to Motley Crue’s “In the Beginning” intro to “Shout at the Devil” and then turns the Oompa Loompa song from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” into something far screamier and more violent. It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek.

The band would release one more album, Motel California (yep, another play), which perhaps strayed a little too far from what they do best, before going their separate ways. Crane did a stint with Life of Agony, guitarist Dave Fortman became a producer, and drummer Shannon Larkin had perhaps the most success, playing with Candlebox and, most notably, Godsmack. The Menace to Sobriety lineup of the band reunited a few years ago to play live shows and record the 2012 EP Stairway to Hell (do I need to say it?). Rumor has it that a new full-length album is in the works.

It’s understandable given the band’s start in the business that Menace to Sobriety is largely overlooked, but it’s a record worthy of attention for hard rock fans. It blends the party rock of the 1980s with the darker, moodier sound of the 1990s and even offers a few tips of the hat to more classic sounds to boot. It’s good stuff.

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelse
Fred Phillips
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