A look back at the best Living Colour album you probably never knew existed
It’s a rare thing when a soft–release album intended only for the Japanese market turns out to be a band’s greatest album.
Yet that’s exactly what transpired when Sony released Living Colour’s Dread at the end of 1993. At the time, Japanese record engaged in releasing compilation records that collected b-sides, remixes, and other hard-to-find material, often with no prior warning. Indeed, Dread was so low-key, its release date is uncertain. Although Internet sites such as Wikipedia list it as a 1994 release, the record itself is labeled 1993, and yours truly bought it in December of that year at a Hastings shortly after selling back his textbooks at a university he only attended for one semester.
Dread is essentially a document of Living Colour’s 1993 Stain tour, consisting of two segments from shows recorded in Chicago and in Paris, as well as a Dutch radio session. Dread offers live takes of seven of that album’s songs—including two versions of the single ”Nothingness,” one with the band, and an acoustic take––as well as six older songs and two studio b-sides from the Stain sessions.
Living Colour earned a reputation for being a superb live band, and read makes that point perfectly clear. For me, the record was a godsend; in spite of their stellar live reputation, the only time I saw them live, they didn’t put on a very good show. They seemed distracted; maybe they had been arguing about something beforehand, maybe they were really tired, or maybe they were not thrilled about their sound ––to be fair, it was Lollapalooza, and festivals can be a mixed bag for bands––it’s hard to say. (Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that bassist Muzz Skillings soon left the band, to be replaced by the electrifying bass wizard Doug Wimbish.)
Whatever the reason for their lackluster performance, Dread made up for it. Stain was a potent and aggressive album, much more so than the good but oddly lacking Time’s Up. At the time, I told friends it reminded me of Metallica, to which some people thought was a very daft and stupid thing for me to say. Dread, however, proved that point; album tracks “Go Away,“ “Auslander,” and “Postman” were already aggressive, but on stage take on an extra dimension of heaviness the studio versions only hinted at. Vivid numbers “Funny Vibe” and “Middleman” are a potent combination of Vernon Reid’s scorching guitar and Corey Glover’s passionate, soulful singing. With the band’s heavier and more powerful approach, these already excellent songs work well with heavier arrangements. “Cult Of Personality,” their signature tune, is a fine bridge between their past and their then present; even with the harder edge, it still sounds exactly like it should sound, perhaps showing that this was the living color that was always there, even if it didn’t always come out that way.
The Dutch radio session that follows the live recordings is a mixed bag. While “Nothingness” and ”Open Letter (To A Landlord)” work quite well in an acoustic setting, the arrangements of Stain’s “Never Satisfied” and their hit “Love Rears Its Ugly Head” present themselves like the noxious sounds of roots-rock, and makes Living Colour sound less like the innovative rockers they are and more like a crappy mid-afternoon band at Bonnaroo or the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. (AND BY THE WAY, it’s almost impossible not to notice how the latter sounds just like Sublime’s “What I Got.”)
In spite of the mixed bag of the radio session, Dread ends on a high note, adding two studio b-sides to an already rewarding record. “TV News,” the album’s final song, is a somewhat stoned blues number, and it’s merely okay; if anything, it feels like a great song that’s been undercooked. The hidden jewel of the record, though, is their absolutely insane cover of Prince’s “17 Days.” Taking the funk out and putting the metal in might not seem to be a fitting move, but it’s surprising how well it works.
Stain left this listener wanting more, but sadly it was not to be; the band would split up just as they began work on their fourth album. Until their reunion, Dread filled that void quite nicely. Furthermore, it shows just how much of a loss it was that the group came to a screeching halt at the peak of their powers. This obscure curiosity serves as a fantastic compendium to not only one of the best albums of 1993, but one of the best albums of the decade, as well as one of Living Colour’s finest moments.