When Ritchie Blackmore quit Deep Purple for the last time in 1994, who would have guessed that the band would not only survive, but would go on to release one of their finest albums ever with Purpendicular in 1996? Steve Morse seemed an unlikely choice for a replacement and his very American southern rock style of playing blended so well that Purpendicular ironically sounded more like classic Deep Purple than anything the band had released since the halcyon days of Machine Head. Under different circumstances, keyboardist Jon Lord departed Purple in 2001 and his role is now being filled by Don Airey, a fine player in his own right.
With two of the most important players now gone, how does the first studio album fare under the new lineup? Unfortunately, not very well. At its best, Bananas superficially rocks out the way Purple are expected to. But most of the time, the band slip into sad self-parody. "House of Pain" begins the album on a relatively high note, a heavy boogie rock stomper that features Ian Gillan's vocals very high in the mix. Happily, he sounds better on Bananas than he did on the Abandon album. Too bad things go downhill from there. "Sun Goes Down" chugs along competently but there's nothing memorable about it, not a decent guitar riff in sight. "Haunted", on the other hand, is a strange Neil Young inspired ballad featuring acoustic guitars and female backing vocals. It is the most misplaced piece of music on any Deep Purple album I've ever heard. "Razzle Dazzle" somehow manages to be even worse. An irritating chorus over Airey's chirpy Hammond organ makes me wonder if the band aren't striving to be Huey Lewis and the News. Bananas does improve after the fourth track, but not by much. "Picture of Innocence" and the title song are as good as it gets. Actually these two tracks are very good: "Picture of Innocence" features Gillan's trademark quirky wordplay and an infectious chorus. The title song is initially rather bland, but out of nowhere comes a splendid instrumental conclusion, a battle between Steve Morse and Don Airey that harkens back to those classic Purple albums. This excellent, much too brief passage makes the surrounding material appear all the weaker.
The problem with Bananas is that the songwriting isn't up to par. Producer Michael Bradford does his best to window dress the album with samba beats on "Doing it Tonight" or with strings on "Haunted", but these production touches can't disguise the inherent weakness of the songs. Too much of the album is reminiscent of American southern rock; indeed the entire album reminds me of Lynyrd Skynyrd lite. The band sound tired, confused and out of ideas. I kept my expectations of this album fairly low after the shaky Abandon but Bananas still manages to be somewhat of a turkey. Deep Purple is probably my favorite rock group and they have given their fans some interesting curve balls over the years. Stormbringer and Slaves and Masters were two records that were not well received but I personally have always liked them. However Bananas is certainly their worst album and one that is impossible for this lifelong Purple fan to defend.