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Music in 1995: Business as usual

By Scott C. Deskin

I have been ashamed of my music-listening habits this past year; maybe I have reason. Lately I've been fed up with the mass-market driven wave of duds on the radio. One particularly disturbing trend is the dominance of "breakthrough" artists or bands fated to become has-beens only a few years later. Today's modern rock and alternative music could follow the same abysmal fate as glam rock and metal in the mid-1980s: an embarrassing, best forgotten sign of the times.

Of course, since modern rock rules both radio and MTV, it's impossible to escape the nefarious music programmer's influence. As a result, the constant deluge and repetition of radio-ready hits has had a two-pronged effect: It hooks me with some songs while it drives me to the point of nausea with others. For example, I enjoyed the fuzzy and slightly sinister pop pleasures of Edwyn Collins' "A Girl Like You" but grew to loathe the sincerity of Live's "Lightning Crashes" and even newcomer Joan Osborne's "One of Us."

Artists like Osborne are not particularly offensive to me one way or another: In fact, the first time I heard "One of Us," it sounded all right. Now, about seven months and one MTV video later, I'm bored to tears after I hear the song's first strains. MOR bands, like Better than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and the Gin Blossoms (not to mention the late 10,000 Maniacs and Natalie Merchant's solo career), specialize in the same melodies and languid vocals, in addition to sharing the same non-threatening pose toward middle-class consumers.

Then there are groups in the prefab corporate alternative rock mode, like Collective Soul, that just get on my nerves. Whatever its merits as a live band, Collective Soul has yet to record anything compelling (except for the summer 1994 hit "Shine"). When the first single "Gel" stiffed, the "hits" that the band chalked up from its eponymous second album leaned toward sensitivity (i.e., the string quartet accompaniment for "The World I Know," another song I grew to know well from endless MTV airplay). Green Day, on the other hand, earns my sympathies for having taken a nose dive in popularity in 1995. Despite critical praise, Insomniac didn't sell much, due in part to "fans" who limited their Green Day purchases to Dookie because "the songs all sound the same." Gee, were the Ramones any different?

Exploiting the Beatles connection

The worst bands of last year were also the most popular, and the two I have in mind covered both ends of the listening public's emotional spectrum. Hootie and the Blowfish personified the nice-guy mentality with dull love songs and a boring, bellowing lead singer (Darius Rucker, not "Hootie"). Besides, the focus of their pop "revolution" includes golf, which seems reason enough to avoid them. Live, with all its pomp and bombast, isn't so threatening until you realize how single-handedly they've swept up the arena rock market now that Pearl Jam is on hiatus. I even read in a recent story in The Boston Globe how the four lads from working-class families in York, Pennsyl-vania, approximate a latter-day group from Liverpool, England. God help us all.

But the Beatles references don't stop there. Most new bands this past year were eager to declare themselves rightful heirs to the Beatles legacy and milked the connection for all it was worth. Brit bands like Blur and Oasis (whose nasty public bickering far exceeds any of the rivalry between the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 60s) tried to make "Beatleseque" comparisons in both their backgrounds and their songs. And Bush, whose "Glycerine" contains a reference to "strawberry fields," could turn into the Moody Blues if band members aren't careful.

Veteran artists had a mixed year. In the face of all the effrontery and posturing from new bands, older musicians often retreated to the comfy musical styles of yesteryear. And while it worked for Neil Young (who seems to have found a kinship with Pearl Jam), David Bowie's confused album Outside failed to reconcile a futuristic concept with some intense musical textures co-opted from tour buddy Trent Reznor. As for Michael Jackson and his album HIStory, probably the less that's said, the better. As far as 90s' arena rock progenitors, the only active ones are Pearl Jam (sort of), R.E.M., and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Is this all the music industry has to offer?

The "best-of" list below is far from comprehensive, but reflects the best of what I heard in 1995. I'm purposefully leaving out albums like Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill - I'm still not sure how far her anathemic rage will take her, cf. "You Oughta Know" - and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' One Hot Minute, whose songs sound fine on the radio, but still haven't tempted me to buy anything.

Elastica, Elastica

This Brit-pop foursome infuses the unrestrained sounds of punk, and the result is catchy and addictive. No deep meaning here: just straight-ahead, no-frills pop songs. The two hit singles from the album, "Connection" and "Stutter," last not much more than two minutes each, and both are brimming with life and humor. "Hold Me Now" rides on a jaunty vocal rhythm and "Car Song" rides on its vocal harmonies, proving that the band can sing as well as play. And a song like "Never Here," whose more serious take on unrequited love stands out against the succinct playfulness of the other songs, shows the band is deeper and poppier than most of their alternative counterparts. Elastica is easily the most enjoyable British export this year. Let's hope the follow-up is just as fun.

Tricky, Maxinquaye

This instantly beguiling album features dance and hip-hop master Tricky, clearly one of the most innovative producer-musicians since Prince or Dr. Dre. Listening to the work he did on Massive Attack's Protection, I could tell there was something more to the music than strange tempos and vocals that seem to sink into the mix (as typified on a cover of the Doors' "Light My Fire"). With Maxinquaye, that feeling is articulated with a dark apocalyptic vision with synthesizers and guitars filtered through a lyrical web of love and anguish. "Overcome," (which features a sample from Massive Attack's "Karmacoma") and a cover of Public Enemy's "Black Steel" are hypnotic, appealing, and frightening - often all at the same time.

Prince (Artist Formerly Known as), The Gold Experience

If you haven't been turned off by his media antics (which, by the way, are nothing compared to Michael Jackson's multi-million-dollar downward slide), the latest album by the former Prince Rogers Nelson is easily his most compelling since the Batman soundtrack or Sign O' the Times. Not content to rest on his laurels, the chameleon-like musician put together a band and steps up to lead guitar (of course). Songs like "Pussy Control" and "Endorphinmachine" are both funny and serious at the same time - especially the former, which recounts the benefits of female empowerment (too bad it won't get any airplay). "We March," co-written by and featuring the lilting vocals of Nona Gaye (daughter of Marvin), is fine, danceable pop; "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" is not the deepest, most meaningful track, but it does feature Prince at his most accessible and romantic level. The song cycle on The Gold Experience is similar to that of Purple Rain, but it shows that the man has grown wiser; the aspiring mid-80s pop messiah has now become more confident - an elder statesman of pop-funk.

Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters

Dave Grohl is just a regular guy - a regular guy who happened to be the drummer in the band Nirvana until lead singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain fell prey to his own manic depression. Grohl wisely kept busy in the studio; perhaps as a cathartic measure, he played and recorded his own songs in the studio for the nascent debut album of his new band, the Foo Fighters. After seeing the band live in L.A., I believe Grohl is committed as much to the fans as he is to the music. Such songs as "I'll Stick Around" and "This is a Call" (with the now-famous couplet "Fingernails are pretty / fingernails are good") are loud, vibrant wake-up calls to the music business that Dave Grohl and company are here to stay. And "Big Me" shows a healthy pop-melodic development that's not merely a imitation of Grohl's previous band.

Matthew Sweet, 100% Fun

100% Fun is a highly enjoyable exercise in the musical sub-genre known as "power pop." With Sweet's multi-tracked harmonies and a clean, crisp guitar, the hooks of "Girlfriend" won me over in short order. Sweet playfully acknowledges his influences on 100% Fun, and the finished product nearly lives up to the title. Singles like "Sick of Myself" and "We're the Same" show the artiste in control and having fun exploring relationships, even with lyrics like "I get sick of myself when I look at at you." Together with producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots), Matthew Sweet has revitalized his career with this small victory in 90s pop music.

PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love

By now, Harvey is a full-fledged member of the alternative scene, standing on the brink of the mainstream (as evidenced by her recent tour with Live, you can't buck the system entirely). But it seems a bit early for her to swear off relationships in a purely sexual vein. However, that may give her a bit more perspective when dealing with pained young love experienced by the characters of her songs, served well by the appropriated blues medium. Lyrically, To Bring You My Love is steeped with sex - pretty familiar territory for Harvey - and the moaning, snarling textures of songs like "Down By the Water" and the title track suggest and eerie fascination with depression and sexual longing. But although she may be as up front about the subject as Liz Phair, her feelings are more ambiguous. To Bring You My Love is a worthy redefinition of pop-blues neoclassicism.

Smashing Pump-kins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

There is no one sound or style that Billy Corgan and his band ride through the recording. That comes at the cost of a distinctive sound (cf. The Beatles' "White Album") but brings with it the gain of variation that a double CD set has to have to retain the listener's attention. The variety of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is indeed impressive. When a song is heavy, it carries the pull of gravity; when it is soft, its breathing can be made out; when it is pretty it is irresistibly cute. The whisper of "Take Me Down" drops into the brutal attack of "Where Boys Fear to Tread" and then eases into the simplicity of a lullaby; the aggressive and slightly weird single "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" is neatly balanced by the album's true centerpiece, the poignant and elegiac "1979." Mellon Collie shows a great range of sounds and styles, with moments that are punkier, poppier, and rockier than anything from the previous Smashing Pumpkins releases, Gish and Siamese Dream. Sadness is surely imperfect, but the care and ambition throughout the recording is enough to maintain interest over a two-hour recording - an impressive feat.