Lead singer Johnette Napolitano is one of the coolest women in all of post-punk rock. Her blood-stained voice cracks and trembles throughout; indeed, she seems incapable of not expressing emotion. Even on the Dead Can Dance-worthy "I Don't Need A Hero," she nearly whispers naked vulnerability, then shows occasional flashes of rebellion on the chorus.
Aside from the wild, punky "The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden" and "The Beast," it's evident that Concrete Blonde's strengths lie in midtempo rockers. The title song sashays through New Orleans with a singalong chorus that's as fun as it is sinister. And the two singles ("Joey," "Caroline") take their time, with guitars fading and notes being held out for effect and increased tension. Despite their obvious status as singles, neither is light and fun. "Caroline" mourns the broken dreams of a vagabond who has suddenly skipped town. "Joey" chronicles the pain of a woman in love with a self-destructive alcoholic (with the memorable line, "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").
Bloodletting's emotional nadir is its last song, "Tomorrow, Wendy." An autobiographical account of a friend who was dying from AIDS, this one bleeds anguish, bitterness, and irreverent rage against the powers that be. ("I told the priest, 'Don't count on any second coming. God got His ass kicked the first time he came 'round here slumming.'") But the most devastating words cut any hope for a happy ending off at the knees with the force of a blunt axe. ("Underneath the chilly gray November sky/We can make believe that Kennedy is still alive and/We're shooting for the moon and smiling Jackie's driving by and/They say, "Good try. Tomorrow, Wendy, you're going to die.") Ouch.
So why the need for a remastered 20th anniversary edition? Well, this is Concrete Blonde's best album, and some cobwebs really needed to be swept away. The sound is noticeably crisper and louder. And more songs were added, mostly to the album's benefit. A few worthy B-sides appear at the end, including a gorgeous rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" that would have fit perfectly in the Singles soundtrack. From a live show, "The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden" blasts past even the original's meteoric tempo, while Napolitano does a nifty call-and-response rap in "Roses Grow." The only unlistenable bummer is an unfortunate bilingual version of "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)," wherein Napolitano sings the last chorus over and over in French while her bandmates sing it in English, producing incomprehensible cacophony. But really, in an album that now stretches over 16 songs, having only one clunker is pretty damned good. If you liked the original Bloodletting and are looking for a reason to pull it out, or if you just want to feel some sinister glee you haven't felt before, treat yourself for Halloween and get the new version. Very worthy.