The concept of the “comeback album” tends to evoke skepticism at this point. For every mbv we get a Chinese Democracy. For every Black Messiah we get a That’s Why God Made the Radio. Given that Ugly Kid Joe fit with the aesthetic of Guns n’ Roses far more than My Bloody Valentine, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect this album might not be great.
A band with a fairly perplexing legacy, Ugly Kid Joe played hard rock and hailed from California. Their highest charting song was a cover of Cat’s In the Cradle by Harry Chapin. Their most successful material mixed pretty, Paradise City aping delayed guitars with chugging metal riffs, carried along by an attitude of youthful rebellion. Whilst they were inexplicably popular in Australia during the 90’s, they weren’t a band with a huge place in the public consciousness. But yet, raising money through crowd funding website pledgemusic.com, they managed to amass 201% of their intended donation target, and from that has emerged a curious album, in that their sound seemingly hasn’t changed at all in 17 years.
Uglier Than They Used Ta Be actually opens quite strongly with Hell Ain’t Hard To Find, with the aforementioned echoing guitars and power chords, it almost plays like a textbook example of their older material’s most successful formula, filled with hooky vocal lines. Unfortunately the rest of the album finds that formula repeated to diminishing returns. There’s the metal head-bangers (Let the Record Play and She’s Already Gone), and the quieter, more “thoughtful” acoustic tracks (Mirror of the Man and Enemy). The sense of repetition sets in quickly, and the entire second half of the album is pretty turgid, causing the record to feel much longer than its 48 minutes suggest. The most striking note of repetition is Under the Bottom, which actually lifts it principal riff almost identically from Hell Ain’t Hard to Find, just 7 songs earlier.
Particularly in the more acoustic-driven ballads, it’s quite difficult not to notice the lyrics, which range from inane – “I sold my soul to the other side / I’m a one man roller coaster ride” – to the legitimately terrible – “the enemy is us / the enemy will break you down”. The latter lyric comes from Enemy, one of the aforementioned ballads, and a track emblematic of the album itself. For 5 minutes, it’s easily the weakest song here, with lyrics that read like supremely generic existential angst, to the strings that enter the mix towards the end of the song, rendering and already strained tune hopelessly overwrought. But then after the song seems to have ended, a coda suddenly emerges that brings a thundering double time drum beat and a joyously cheesy guitar solo, and with it more adrenaline than anything else on the record. The tragedy is that it only lasts about a minute.
As a whole, Uglier Than They Used Ta Be is largely just that; mostly dull and sluggish, with moments of excitement which are rarely allowed to stretch to their full potential. The interesting wah-wah textures of the guitar on the closer Papa Was A Rolling Stone (a cover of the song by 70’s Blues Rock outfit Rare Earth) quickly disappear and are replaced by more Metallica-lite chugging. It’s all little moments of interest and invention, snatched away in a attempt to re-live the glory years, which have now long passed.