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Concrete Blonde cracks up and bounces back

New album continues to channel band's somber side

With her bags in hand, Johnette Napolitano stands at the crossroads of joy and despair Ñ like all great rock 'n' rollers on tour.

Beside her, you'll find guitarist Jim Mankey and drummer Harry Rushakoff, fellow members of Concrete Blonde, perhaps Los Angeles' most exciting post-punk band of the late '80s.

Napolitano's achingly honest songs, Mankey's wickedly dark licks and Rushakoff's pounding backbeat created an indelible signature that reverberated long after the band split up in 1994.

Now, eight years later, Concrete Blonde is back with a new CD, 'Group Therapy,' and a national tour, which comes to Portland next week.

A back-to-back comparison of 1990's 'Bloodletting' (which yielded the top 20 hit 'Joey') and the new CD shows the band hasn't missed a beat.

The trio started rehearsing what would become 'Group Therapy' last year.

'Johnette came to my house one day and she was kinda wrecked and she said, 'Let's call Harry and put on a show,'' Mankey said. 'It all followed from that.'

Napolitano's title for the CD Ñ illustrated with an electric chair and band members in straitjackets Ñ fits the band to a T.

'Every one of us was having some kind of problems,' Mankey said. 'Getting together to do this album was a way of distracting ourselves from our discomfort.

'It's an accurately descriptive title,' he said. 'Harry's been in a halfway rehab place, Johnette was having personal problems and not afraid to let people know she was cracking up. I've been fighting depression most of my life.

'I tried to become a normal person, but it really didn't work out. But we're better now because we did this record. It kept us busy, and we had no time to be cracked up.'

Each of the band's five albums has exacted a price.

'All our records have blood on them,' Mankey said. 'I don't think everybody who makes music necessarily goes through this, but man, every record we did took years off our lives. They were intense experiences. Johnette worries that when we get together we channel the dark side.'

That aspect of Concrete Blonde explodes off the new CD in 'Violent.'

Although the song was written months before the Sept. 11 attacks, the first time the band played it live was during a Red Cross benefit for World Trade Center survivors. Behind a hammering beat and vicious, sirenlike riff, Napolitano sings:

'I feel hot and red and wired/I feel burned out like I've expired/freaky dreams and you are there/with glowing eyes and burning hair/and I'm even dreaming violent.'

She continues: 'A flood of blood and burning pain/broken hearts and throbbing brains/the message has been sent/and it's violent.'

Napolitano has said that the foreshadowing of the song just scares her to death.

'It frightened her Ñ she thought maybe the song was too close to home for the concert,' Mankey said. 'When things are in the air she has a way of pulling them down into words.'

The band started the latest songs just by jamming, Mankey said.

'We'd turn on the tape recorder and all the songs start on a single groove, instead of verse/chorus/

verse/middle eight. We rely heavily on our natural interaction, and the jamming works really well.'

Mankey is now 49, Napolitano 44 and 'Harry's still 30-something,' Mankey said.

'It's nice to think rockers can get old,' he said. 'If it was Etta James, people would say, 'Isn't it wonderful she had such a long career?' For some reason with rock 'n' roll, you've got to be young. We're here to prove we're not too old.'