When Enuff Z’Nuff are at the top of their game, they’re a fantastic band. Their first three albums (‘Enuff Z’Nuff’, ‘Strength’ and ‘Animals With Human Intelligence’ rank among the best melodic rock and power pop discs ever. From that point on, you’ll find good songs scattered throughout their next half a dozen releases, but the cut and paste nature of these can be a little frustrating. From 1999’s ‘Paraphernalia’ onwards, the band seemed to settle into a pattern of bulking out “new” releases with bits and pieces from their extensive vaults. Their 2000 release ’10’ is a blatant example of this, having been pieced together from recordings made over the previous half a decade. Just one listen to ‘There Goes My Heart’ might even be enough to convince some listeners that the song had been kicking around even longer, such is its quality (being comparable to the best bits of the 1985 demos and the EZ’N debut album). Their 2004 release ‘?’ was even more scattershot, featuring new songs alongside a bunch of material dating back to the ‘Animals…’ sessions in 1992. Frankly, if the songs weren’t good enough in the 90s, they certainly felt like third division off cuts over a decade later.
With long-time on-off vocalist (and essential ingredient) Donnie Vie now firmly out of the picture, the band’s 2020 release ‘Brainwashed Generation’ feels a lot like an album recorded by “Chip Z’Nuff and Some Blokes”. It even features a slightly different line up of hired hands to 2018’s ‘Diamond Bay’, further giving the impression that Chip is firmly clinging on…at least from an outsider’s point of view. However, although it’s sort of Enuff Z’Nuff in name only, ‘Brainwashed…’ features some of Z’Nuff’s best compositions since…well, almost forever. At least since ’10’ crept out to public indifference some twenty years earlier. Two decades seems a long time to coast along on past glories, but the fact that this disc includes something as marvellous as ‘Fatal Distraction’, a tune where Chip can be heard revelling in a Cheap Trick drenched, hazy 70s vibe, or ‘Go…’, a number that retains a truckload of the melodic flair of the band’s ‘Tweaked’ era…well, it’s sort of been worth it.
There’s something at the heart of lead single ‘Fatal Distraction’ that feels like classic EZ’N, even if the vocals are a sometimes bit off and the production values aren’t anywhere near as pleasing as those on their first few albums. Perhaps it’s the crashy chord progressions shamelessly recycling not only Cheap Trick’s peak career pomp but also Chip’s past glories; maybe it’s because there’s an element of fun cutting through that harks back to glam’s golden era in a way most other bands fail to conjure; it could have a lot to do with a fantastic chorus that certainly appears to carry the spirit of Donnie Vie… Whatever it is, almost everything about it is great. The same could definitely be said of the shamelessly Beatle-esque ‘Broken Love’ which comes straight from the same page as ‘Strength’s ‘Goodbye’, only with a more demo-licious end sound. Although the compressed final mix leaves much to be desired [it sounds pretty terrible if you happen to play it back to back with anything from the band’s Atco recordings, so definitely don’t do that…], the wavering melodies and bits and bobs pilfered from ‘I Am The Walrus’ result in something that most fans would recognise as being Enuff Z’Nuff, regardless of vocalist or line-up. Even more of a Beatles obsession drives ‘It’s All In Vain’, a likeable piece of 60s inspired rock that, again, would be so easy to imagine suiting Donnie Vie very well. Guesting on drums, the overrated Mike Portnoy sounds unbelievably bored plodding through a simplistic rhythm, but in terms of EZ’N’s pastiche material, the rest of the band sound fine: the fuzzy rhythm guitars have just enough of that 60s through a 90s filter that made the early albums enjoyable, and a few plays brings out more of a pleasingly familiar melody.
The aforementioned ‘Go…’ might lack Donnie’s sunnier demeanour and Derek Frigo’s superior lead guitar sounds, but settling for what fans are given, it’s still got so much of the core EZ’N sound that means it automatically seems very familiar. Between its general neo-psych stance, a vocal melody that sounds like the sort of thing Chip has written dozens of times over the years and an underscoring of unease, it actually manages to be one of the album’s highlights. Something that should’ve been among the album’s standouts, ‘Drugland Weekend’ reverts to the harder sound of 1992’s ‘Animals With Human Intelligence’, something made very clear via a tight and dark riff used as opening gambit. It’s a shame that such a great sound quickly moves into an indistinct mulch. While the power pop and glam hybrid sound of the verse is appealing (and especially so if you’re the kind of listener who still reaches for various trashy rock bands from the 90s and beyond), it’s a shame that it never results in a better song. The chorus promises much but buries any potential excitement in a fudgy sounding haze and it’s left to some nifty lead guitar work to save face. …And indeed, some of the lead guitar work attacks with a decent intent. On its own, its more than fine, but it doesn’t quite match this disc’s finer moments. More of a psychedelic twang during the chorus of ‘I Got My Money Where My Mouth Is’ sides with ‘Go…’, despite the rest of the track taking on a tougher mantle. Here, the band’s desire for something punchy really excels on a great intro – reused to punctuate the melodies throughout. For anyone who’d ever hoped to hear something that somehow sounded like Enuff Z’Nuff jamming with Gilby Clarke or the Beat Angels, this’ll surely come pretty close. A tune to file under “enjoyably trashy rock”. Bringing more of a glam stomp the fore, ‘Winding Road’ couples hazy vocals with some tough guitars (courtesy of Alex Kane and Tory Stoffregren), resulting in both the album’s best riff and finest lead guitar work. Thankfully, the music is good enough to hold its own, as lyrically everything feels too much like a guide vocal when Chip settles for Lennon-esque rhyming a la ‘Come Together’. This doesn’t always inspire – others have certainly done this kind of thing in a more superior fashion, though few have managed to shoehorn the word “defibrillator” into a lyric so easily.
In terms of singers, Chip isn’t the greatest but he has just about enough of a presence to give some good songs a reasonable send off. …And at the end of it all, it’s those songs that count, and although far from perfect sonically, ‘Brainwashed Generation’ certainly has some moments of great strength (though, obviously, it’s never as good as ‘Strength’, EZ’N’s classic LP from ’91). Even if Donnie’s absence has left a massive hole and a lot of the material feels strangely familiar, with at least five brilliantly written numbers to be found within a lean and vinyl-friendly thirty-something minutes, this album offers just enough to excite fans.