If Kip Winger hadn’t been around to make music in the ’80s, someone would have had to invent him.
Prettier than Lita Ford, with teeth whiter than Utah, the most perfect hard rock name not ending in “Dokken,” and a gift for the kind of leering lasciviousness that sounds about as dangerous as milk (and sounds great on the radio besides), Winger entered the charts in 1988 like Wilt Chamberlain joining the NBA in 1959 — in other words, with so many unfair natural advantages that they should have created an entirely new league. Seriously, “Seventeen”? Winger was like a meticulously stubbled, hair metal version of Chuck Berry, reducing rock & roll to its key thematic components (specifically, young girls and the gross older dudes who love them) while still allowing room for a little flash. His music bore the strong scent of Velveeta, but people have been buying that shit since 1918. Other bands might have made double entendres more successfully (see: “Cherry Pie”), but none of them had the same combination of pop-grounded metal and cheerleader good looks (see: any picture of Jani Lane). If he had played his cards right, Winger could have been one of the all-time legends.
Like a lot of people who are really great at one thing, Kip Winger always seemed to be focused on doing something else. When listening to his band’s first two albums, 1988’s Winger and 1990’s Winger II: In the Heart of the Young, I was always reminded of Bill Murray in The Razor’s Edge, because they all delivered the same kind of senseless dissatisfaction derived from watching an entertainer struggle to do something besides entertain. Winger could come up with awesome hornball anthems like “Can’t Get Enough” in his sleep, and he had a way with the power ballad, as evidenced by “Miles Away” and “Headed for a Heartbreak,” but he was more interested in vaguely proggish crap like “Rainbow in the Rose.” And when grunge came to town, Winger was one of the first to abandon his strengths, loading up 1993’s Pull with songs that suggested his idea of rocking really hard was stringing together unrelated words (“Blind Revolution Mad,” “Down Incognito,” “Junkyard Dog [Tears on Stone]”). It was, to cop a phrase from my dear friend Jack Feerick, a bit sad, really.
The ’90s were terribly unkind to Winger. Not only was his band reduced to the butt of a Mike Judge gag, but his wife was killed in a 1996 car crash, and he spent the latter part of the decade releasing understandably morose-sounding records on various tiny labels while making a few extra bucks by popping up on the seemingly endless series of Cleopatra “tribute” records that helps guys like George Lynch and Steven Pearcy cover the rent during lean months. During the late ’90s, when everyone from Night Ranger to Great White was scoring deals with CMC, Portrait, and Castle, Winger stayed un-reunited, and I always thought that was for the best; the only way hair metal isn’t embarrassing for the artist and the listener is if it’s being performed with a heavy dose of irony (a la Poison after 1993) or by people who are too young to have seen Ratt on its first tour (a la Hinder). Winger took his music too seriously for the former and he was too old for the latter, and you just knew if the band got back together, he’d pen something that sounded nothing like “Seventeen” — like, say, a song cycle about American troops, which is what he did when he finally got the band back together for 2006’s Winger IV.
Well, give Winger credit, because he had the good sense to head back to his wheelhouse for the band’s new album, Karma. Much as I’ve joked about “Seventeen” being the ultimate Winger song, there’s no getting around the fact that a 48-year-old man has no business singing about sex with underage girls (not that anyone does, really, but you get the idea). To avoid unintentional comedy — or the tedium of Winger IV — the band had to take Kip’s most successful themes (wild women, hard living, hard-living wild women) and bring them into early middle age, which is kind of like building a time machine — it’s damn near impossible, and even if you can do it, the risks far outweigh the benefits.
And yet here with are with Karma, which is — and I realize I’m damning with faint praise here — the most consistent set of songs Winger has recorded. Though it lacks the delirious sugar highs of a “Seventeen” or “Can’t Get Enough,” it’s devoid of any numbing lows, and also, it doesn’t contain any dreadful Hendrix covers, with is always a bonus. At a lean ten songs and 45 minutes, it incorporates the goofy, punch-brained rock & roll you want to hear in a Winger record (opening track “Deal with the Devil” is 2:59), while also making room for a couple of the grandiose epics he wedges into every album (“Supernova” and “Witness” both top six minutes). Setting aside the inherent foolishness of a man who’s pushing 50 screaming about a girl who’s a “stone cold killer,” Karma packages most of the band’s strengths and manages to avoid its weaknesses. In all seriousness, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an ’80s hair metal band update its sound this successfully. Of course, I’m not sure that’s something I needed to hear; even if it’s Winger’s most consistent set of songs, it can’t help but be a little less fun than their first two albums. You might appreciate the, ahem, compositional depth of these tracks, but I don’t think any of them will prompt reflexive devil horns and wagging tongues; it’s more likely that they’ll just make you want to listen to Winger or In the Heart of the Young. Which is a pretty incredible trick, when you think about it.
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