Sex & Religion (Relativity)
Steve Vai

By Bob Bahr

Listening to Steve Vai's debut as a songwriter is like watching Michael Jordan play his first-ever round of golf. You have tons of respect for him as a player and you give him plenty of slack in this new endeavor, sure that he could become a world-beater.

Slack for Vai is necessary on Sex & Religion, with lyrics such as "You gotta go down deep into the pain/Let it purge your soul like flesh to a razor blade. . .

Drift into euphoria." All of Vai's words on Sex & Religion ring with the endearing earnestness of a young poet, even as they embarrass you with their lack of polish. Vai fans will love the glimpse into the intimate soul of this exceptional guitarist, even as casual listeners cling to bright electric guitar bits like the instrumental "Touching Tongues."

Catchy melodies such as the vocal lines in "Still My Bleeding Heart" and the title track imply that Vai has been schooling on the artists he has worked with in brief stints as a hired gun (David Lee Roth, etc.). While the melodies are sung here, it's very easy to imagine the vocal lines being played (and stretched out) on Vai's axe.

Vai is a master arranger; witness "Pig," a complex bit of funky chaos reminiscent in tone of Jane's Addiction's "Pigs in Zen." In fact, Jane's Addiction's fresh rethinking of the rock genre has liberated Vai in a number of ways. Like some of Jane's Addiction, "Pig" is simultaneously revolting and provocative in its lyrics, much like the song "Sex & Religion" is.

Vai mixes the sacred and profane in a much more straightforward manner than Prince, like when Vai has vocalist Devin Townsend sing, "Well, Jesus Christ/Is in your bed tonight/To bring you back from the dead." Vai's purpose seems to be to elevate sex to the level of the sacred, but on the surface, dropping the name of Jesus into the lyric is shocking. It takes some getting used to.

The title track isn't an isolated case. "The Road to Mt. Calvary" is even more adventurous: the enclosed lyric sheet includes words that are not on the disc and those words create an analogy between a devout Christian's prayer and Vai's effort to love her (in both senses of the word "love" ). The Religious Right would not dig this, although Vai's perspective is artistically worthy.

The song "Sex & Religion" comes five cuts into this disc, though and those first five are hard to get through. "Here and Now" opens the album (after a brief instrumental interlude) with a conventional rock sound. Townsend's vocals and the crack rhythm section of drummer Terry Bozio and bassist T.M. Stevens contribute to the light rock session-player atmosphere. Presumably, Vai's music in the song uses amazingly advanced music theory. But to relatively untrained ears like mine, it doesn't matter. Applying musical theory to pop music can produce an intangible appeal in unschooled listeners (see Steely Dan), but it isn't a surefire method. "Here and Now" and the next cut, "In My Dreams with You," are snoozers.

The aforementioned hooky-ness of "Still My Bleeding Heart" gets the listener in a way that those two songs don't.

The last cut, "Rescue Me or Bury Me," is what you might imagine a pop Vai record to sound like, with a vibe similar to his work with Frank Zappa and lots of pretty guitar playing. It's highly accessible, but much more satisfying because it sits beside Sex & Religion's more challenging cuts. And again, the music is thoroughly arranged and impeccably assembled. The album may be too polished for alternative folks, but the content is plenty progressive for the same people. And headbangers who realize that a heavy hammer can be used in a delicate manner will flip over Sex & Religion.