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Old and new artists exploit and fall prety to 'alternative' music wave in 1994

By Scott Deskin

Iwish I could say 1994 was a good year for pop music. We are, after all, at the unofficial midpoint of the decade, so the music industry should naturally be more sophisticated now than, say, in 1990. Old artists like Eric Clapton and Neil Young are still active, and middle-aged bands like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth have expanded their listening audiences with some imaginative new efforts. In the wake of Kurt Cobain's tragic suicide, people have been forced to re-evaluate their listening habits. Even the infusion of new bands like Green Day and the Cranberries have been somewhat interesting; but, the sudden godlike ascension of some new "alternative" artists has worried me.

Sure, Sheryl Crow's debut album is diverting, but does she really deserve five Grammy nominations? ("All I Wanna Do" isn't very enlightening, just catchy.) And whatever charm Counting Crows had with their debut album was quickly deflated with an excess of radio hype and MTV airplay - I can't even listen to "Mr. Jones" anymore without thinking I might have to take a sledgehammer to the stereo.

Bands are scoring one-hit wonders left and right, throwing caution to the wind as to where their careers might be in a year or two (remember the Spin Doctors?). Sometimes I think that getting on the cover of Rolling Stone for some younger bands or artists may be the kiss of death.

That said, I can firmly say that there were still a lot of good albums released in 1994. With a popular listening market that's still rapidly diversifying - beat-heavy dance tracks and prefab R&B dominated the charts - I can't keep up with all the major developments in rock and pop. On some albums, like Beck's Mellow Gold, Sam Phillips' Martinis and Bikinis, and Nirvana's Unplugged in New York, I withhold judgment as one of "the best" of last year because of personal hesitation.

Therefore, instead of compiling an all-encompassing top 10 list of music, I'll just list a few albums which grew on me with repeated listenings, as well as impressed me enough to consider buying them.

Soundgarden, Superunknown

I've been listening to Soundgarden since 1991, and a lot has changed since then. Just seeing lead singer Chris Cornell again in the movie Singles, wailing the song "Birth Ritual" on stage in all his long-haired, bare-chested glory, reminded me how much his band has matured since then.

I personally liked their previous album, Badmotorfinger, which relied heavily on loud, charging rhythms and Cornell's patented screams to make an impression. It did, but some people may not have noticed actual melodies and some clever, disaffected lyrics in the wake of comparisons to Led Zeppelin.

In Temple of the Dog (1991) Cornell proved that he could actually sing (and write), collaborating with other Seattle musicians, including Eddie Vedder on "Hunger Strike," as a tribute to Andrew Wood, the deceased frontman for Mother Love Bone, the band that predates Pearl Jam.

With Superunknown, the band broke ties to an exclusive heavy-metal tradition. Songs like the scream-laden confusion of "Superunknown" and rhythmic drive of "Spoonman" continue the loud, power-chord-driven explosion, but "Fell on Black Days" and "Black Hole Sun" exhibit the band's softer, brooding side. "Black Hole Sun" has been noted for its Beatles-influenced melodicism, but the tune belies its dark and disturbing lyrics: "Boiling heat / Summer stench / 'Neath the black / The sky looks dead / Call my name / Through the cream / And I'll hear you / Scream again."

The band's overall sound coheres around Matt Cameron's solid drumming and Kim Thayil's prototypical grunge-like guitar. Bassist Ben Shepherd, whose vocal response to Cornell's wail is heard in "Spoonman," contributes the eerie melody of "Head Down." Still it's Cornell's show, and he shows a great amount of insight and control on this latest work.

R.E.M., Monster

I think I missed the R.E.M. wave the first time around. Songs like "Radio Free Europe" and "The One I Love" sounded fine, but I couldn't bring myself to accept their late-phase limp pop and acoustic weirdness. Monster is like a shot at redemption for the band, a wake up call for listeners, and perhaps themselves, to get off their asses and stop wallowing in lush orchestral accompaniment, as well as self-indulgence. They may be the most pretentious band in America, according to a WBCN disc jockey, but at least they're responsive to their audience.

The album is deeper than its catchy singles, "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" and "Bang and Blame," both of which MTV and VH-1 threaten to turn stale. But the rest of the album sounds surprisingly fresh. The songs with characteristically serious themes, such as loss of freedom ("King of Comedy," with the recurring lyric "I'm not commodity") and the confusion of sex ("Strange Currencies," "Crush with Eyeliner"), aren't swept away by pessimism.

Monster, with its distorted power-chord riffing and feedback noises, has provoked accusations that R.E.M. has hopped on the "grunge" bandwagon, but they're just appropriating a sound that best suits the direct nature of the songs. The lyrics are slightly more obscure, and less decipherable, than on previous albums, but no one said that rock 'n' roll has to be concrete to be enjoyable.

Liz Phair, Whip Smart

After a year of stage-fright from touring, media exposure, and time to soak in her success, Liz Phair released Whip-Smart, a surprisingly succinct and coherent follow-up to the critically-hailed Exile in Guyville. Her new album breaks off into new directions, reasserting female sexual longings without succumbing to their banalities.

Phair's voice isn't very remarkable, but her melodies have a rich, pop feel to them, and her lyrics are honest and insightful - about love and sex, mostly. It's not just that Phair is willing to drop the occasional expletive into her dialogue with the listener, just to make sure she's not misunderstood; but in each song she tells a little story whose context conjures up a word or a phrase that defies normal conversation.

Phair throws her ball of confusion and emotional angst at the listener in hopes of evoking confusion, and perhaps arousal. On Guyville, Phair tied her songs to the challenge of life and love in a male-dominated, both sexually and musically, world. Her new album may at first seem like a retreat from this premise, for many of her songs draw heavily from simple cultural texts, like nursery school rhymes ("Dogs of L.A." and "Whip-Smart") or rock-poet fantasy ("Supernova" and "X-Ray Man").

However, each song represents another facet of Phair's fascination with the opposite sex, whether it be the slick wordplay of the MTV-hitbound "Supernova" ("Your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub's bare wet ass") or the tender multi-tracked vocals on "Nashville" ("I won't decorate my love").

The sentiments that Phair delivers vary widely from song to song, but each idea builds around the central theme of independence and respect. It's not an album for the ages, but another solid step toward Phair's own sexual and commercial epiphany.

Hole, Live Through This

Courtney Love must have had one hell of year. Bracketing the release of her first album, Live Through This, was the suicide of her husband, Kurt Cobain, and the death by heroin overdose of Kristen Pfaff, bassist for her band, Hole. The spotlight was suddenly on Love to deliver her punk-rock-derived goods, and she did.

The 12 songs on Live Through This are not meant to be comforting: "Doll Parts," a fine song and the album's only breakthrough video/single, is probably the most accessible thing on the album. The lyrics convey a sense of longing and emotional retribution: "Someday, you will ache like I ache."

To be truthful, about half the songs from the album are ballads, but the messages in each song are pure punk product, much in the tradition of Nirvana's albums. She takes some of her cues for social outrage from female punk artists of the past, like Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders or Joan Jett. Songs like "Miss World," "I Think That I Would Die," and "Gutless" don't suggest any pop-crossover compromise, either.

One song, "Asking for It," plaintively states, "If you live through this with me / I swear that I will die for you," which may have been part of a larger plea for acceptance from her troubled husband - not that anyone couldn't read some hidden meanings from Love's marriage into the lyrics.

Courtney Love's voice is forceful but not overpowering: Her singing pours forth real emotion and feelings. The album's final track, "Rock Star," is a reaffirmation of her own band's mission in the face of countless, "alternative" rock groups. It will be interesting to see if Love can maintain her intensity without burning out, but for now the critical and commercial wave is upon her, so she might as well make the most of it.

Elvis Costello, Brutal Youth

It pains me to say so, but several noteworthy veterans came out with albums this year which hardly saw the light of day. Elvis Costello's Brutal Youth was a fine pop effort which saw him reunite with his old backing group, the Attractions, for the first time since 1986.

One of my favorite songs off the album is "This Is Hell," a subtle commentary on a run-down nightclub which could also serve as the creative state of popular music: "My Favorite Things' is playing / Again and again / But it's by Julie Andrews / And not by John Coltrane." The debut single, "13 Steps Lead Down," and the angry wordplay of "Kinder Murder" are both great recapitulations of melodic themes in his earlier work.

The album is closer in spirit to his latter day work (probably from King of America, in 1985, onward) than to his new-wave hits of the late '70s, although it's a smart move away from classical music, which was probably an ill-advised venture spurred on by friend and one-time classical composer, Paul McCartney. Costello's classical-music phase is addressed in "My Science Fiction Twin," which shows that he can deflect some criticism, with good humor, toward himself once in a while.

If you're not familiar with his work, this album may not be the place to start: Rykodisc's superb box set entitled 2 1/2 Years shows the young Elvis raiding airwaves in the late '70s with songs like "Watching the Detectives" and "Pump It Up." Still, Brutal Youth is an incisive, clever, and welcome return to form.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Sleeps with Angels

Neil Young's album, Sleeps with Angels, is a personal but enjoyable album that addresses themes of violence and suicide, namely the death of Kurt Cobain, who quoted a Neil Young lyric in his suicide note: "It's better to burn out than to fade away".

Just as the demise of the Sex Pistols prompted Young's superb Rust Never Sleeps in 1979, he and his group Crazy Horse tackle the same issues with same ferocity and perspective. It may take a while for the songs to sink in, because Neil the acoustic-based tunesmith is evidence here as much as Neil the animal, proto-grunge rocker.

In songs like "Driveby" and "Sleeps with Angels," Young delicately confronts death and the fragile nature of life itself. These themes culminate in the album's centerpiece, "Change Your Mind," a 15-minute guitar ballad that doesn't feel like one. In an open letter to Cobain, Young offers this touching advice:

When you get weak, and you need to test your will

When life's complete, but there's something missing still

Distracting you from this must be the one you love

Must be the one whose magic touch can change your mind

Don't let another day go by without the magic touch

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is "Piece of Crap," a personal, but tongue-in-cheek, attack on all things over-marketed and valueless. It easily beats the work of one of Young's contemporaries, Eric Clapton, in its originality and daring; by contrast, Clapton's From the Cradle is a crisp workup of old blues songs, expertly performed by Clapton and his ace studio musicians, and much less affecting. Yet Clapton is still topping the charts, enjoying more widespread acceptance and popularity than during the "Clapton is God" era of the late '60s. Go figure.

Pearl Jam, Vitalogy

After Pearl Jam's two previous platinum-plus albums, you might think success would've gone to their heads. Not so; frontman and de facto spokesman Eddie Vedder is as principled and hardworking as ever, both in the crusade against Ticketmaster and in performing.

I liked their first album, Ten, but I sensed that their skyrocketing popularity around the time of their second album, Vs., inflated their stature in the world of rock music. As such, I expected Vitalogy to be a pretentious scattering of ideas: That's partly true, but the ideas manage to stick together quite well. Even Vedder's 32-page booklet doesn't seem overblown - compared to the contents of the album itself.

Vitalogy is more or less a collection of songs that contemplate mortality and, perhaps, getting old too soon. As the album's paperboard packaging and antiquated booklet both indicate, the band cleverly exploits marketing scheme to its own advantage, to make a statement about the near-demise of vinyl. In fact, "Spin the Black Circle," one of the amped-up anthems from the album, metaphorically works better as a tribute to vinyl than as a reference to shooting up with heroin: "See this needle / See my hand / Drop, drop, dropping it down / Oh so gently." Two ballads, similarly titled "Nothingman" and "Better Man," deal with different relationships from male and female perspectives, respectively, in a poignant manner.

As always, Vedder gets the most attention, and he leaves his mark all over the album. Aside from his characteristically rich vocals and fuzzy lyrics, he contributes "Bugs," a strange, accordion-backed rant about coping with insects, real or imagined, and "Pry, To," a one-minute throwaway in the tradition of the Beatles' "Wild Honey Pie" (from their White Album). Similarly, the band draws inspiration for its last track, "Stupidmop," from the Beatles' "Revolution No. 9."

It's too early too suggest that the members of Pearl Jam are indulging too much, aiming to become a post-grunge era Fab Five, but I think that Vitalogy is everything Vedder wanted it to be: vibrant, tuneful, and alive. But for lush, crowd-pleasing anthems, I'll still listen to Ten first.