RANKED: Chris Gaines
Let the buzz begin.
Chinese Democracy, the (sort of) Guns ’n Roses album, took twenty years to surface. If we use that as the measuring stick for a slow fermenting creative genius, the long-awaited Chris Gaines album The Lamb should be arriving early next year. In anticipation of its possible arrival, I’ve been digging deep into the enigmatic performer’s catalogue. Not even Google seems to be able to track Gaines down these days but I imagine he is holed up in his studio outside of Malibu, hopefully, putting the finishing touches on The Lamb. As another year passes without any news on Gaines, it feels like a good time to look back on the highs and lows of his recording career in this episode of Ranked.
I’m tempted to leave this off the list since Crush was Chris Gaines in a group setting but the success of “My Love Tells Me So” is an essential part of the Gaines story. Of all his material, the Crush album shows the most age with overly slick 80s production values that creep towards 80s Chicago. However, the three young men side-step the pitfalls of becoming a chart topping boy band where image trumps substance. In doing so, the slightly sweet pop-rock confections on CRUSH hold up pretty well. Had Tommy Levitz not died in that plane crash, it would have been interesting to see where the band would have gone on album number two. Instead, Gaines bottled up that grief and set out on his own as a mysterious solo artist.
The influence of Prince on Chris Gaines was always bubbling under the surface but Gaines decides to let his love for the Purple One fly freely on Triangle. When he gets it right, the fusion of styles works out wonderfully such as “That’s The Way I Remember It” which sounds like Garth Brooks covering an undiscovered Prince ballad. However, the pressure of being Chris Gaines was starting to wear on the songwriter and even the successful “Drifting’ Away” doesn’t match the heights of his earlier albums. Proving that there are no “bad” Chris Gaines album, Triangle still feels like it comes up a little sort of expectations.
Released quietly and with no promotion, Apostle represents one of the most challenging periods of Chris Gaines’ life. Written while recovering from the infamous car crash that may have inspired Radiohead’s “Airbag”, Gaines was shrouded in darkness during two years of extensive rehab and plastic surgery. Writing from his hospital bed, a collection of songs came together and Gaines set to work recording them as soon as the doctors cleared him to sing. Written for one of his nurses, “Unsigned Letter” remains one of Gaines finest compositions and The Wallflowers’ 1996 hit “One Headlight” borrows a lot from it to the point that Gaines briefly considered taking the young Dylan to court. One of the more intimate albums in the Gaines discography, Apostle is the first on this list that feels “essential” for even a casual fan.
Straight Jacket (1989)
The death of Crush bandmate Tommy Levitz forced Gaines to step forward as a solo artist and Straight Jacket proves that he should have been a solo artist all along. The type of album where even the album cuts sound like smash singles, the album ranks up there with Thriller and Hysteria as landmark 1980s albums, especially in Australia where he was already a star. Written in Berlin after watching the classic film Poison Kisses, “Digging For Gold” will forever be Gaines’ most treasured song. The chorus explodes with color and even my cat seems to know all the words. However, it is “Maybe” that brings me back to this album time and time again. Written for Levitz, Gaines channels his Paul McCartney on this gentle ballad that has become as timeless as “Hey Jude” in the pop canon.
While probably not as heated as The Joshua Tree vs. Achtung Baby argument, choosing the best Chris Gaines album seems almost pointless when you reach the top of the list. A week ago, I might have chosen Straight Jacket myself! But over the years, I have come back to Fornucopia more often than not. The time he spent with his dying father in the lead up to this album stripped Gaines’ writing of any disguise. This was the man and his emotions completely exposed to the world. “It Don’t Matter To the Sun” captured his pain and sent it out to the world in a way that the entire universe could understand. “Main Street” became the big stadium anthem we knew Gaines had inside him and it writes another chapter for the story Springsteen began with “Born To Run”. The unforgivable album art at the time has become unintentionally awesome over the years with it’s sexually charged A Clockwork Orange overtones but none of us fell in love with Chris Gaines for the artwork. Song after song on Fornucopia leaves you certain that in a slightly different world, Chris Gaines would be the world’s most beloved artist. Here’s hoping The Lamb will arrive soon and take us there.