After Further Review

Putting the season's major releases to the test.

Metallica
Reload
(Elektra)

To put it as plainly as possible, the last Metallica album, 1996's Load, made me angry: To see a band that I had always valued for its integrity change its music for what appeared to be commercial reasons was deeply frustrating. But after catching the quartet in concert earlier this year, I was able to listen to Reload with fresh ears--and after doing so, I appreciated the decent band Metallica is rather than pining for the really good band it used to be. Make no mistake--the speed-metal days are a thing of the past for these guys, replaced by boogie tempos, cleaner riffs, and vocals from James Hetfield that only occasionally growl. Hetfield's new style of singing can be disconcerting at times: He actually croons the opening section of "The Unforgiven II," which sounds for all the world like Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)"; executes an unexpectedly accurate Robin Zander impression in the Beatles-by-way-of-Cheap-Trick middle section of "Carpe Diem Baby"; and willingly gives himself over to the Alice in Chains harmonies that mark "Where the Wild Things Are." But in the tidy sonic environment created by producer Bob Rock, this approach is not only apropos--it's notably effective. Although a few nods are made toward Metallica's once-relentless style, most of them are purposely brief, like the Lurch tones that accent the hook line of the otherwise standard-issue rock of "Better Than You." However, the playing of Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted remains slashing and concise, and there's still passion in their professionalism. If you're waiting for another Master of Puppets from this foursome, disappointment will be your only friend. But considering how little of today's heavy rock is worth its weight in beans, Reload is well above average. So live with it or move on.

Various Artists
Tibetan Freedom Concert
(Grand Royal/Capitol)

Had these events, which took place on June 15 and 16, 1996, in San Francisco, and on June 7 and 8, 1997, in New York City, been put together by, say, Sting, a three-CD commemoration of them would have been sheer agony. But fortunately, the man behind the fundraisers was Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, who has good, eclectic musical taste and isn't afraid to put it on display. Hence, the package is both a good way to learn about the oppressive situation in Tibet without paying attention to Richard Gere and confirmation that disparate forms of music can and should co-exist. The chanted prayers that lead off the first two discs are present mainly for show, but the juxtaposition on the initial platter of cuts by vocalist Yngchen Lhamo ("Om Mani Padme Hung"), Patti Smith ("About a Boy"), Radiohead ("Fake Plastic Trees") and A Tribe Called Quest ("Oh My God") is extremely purposeful: It symbolizes a shared humanity that goes beyond skin color, national origin, religious preference and the fondness for or dislike of power chords. My teeth ached while listening to Alanis Morissette's "Wake Up," and I could have done without "Electrolite," in which Michael Stipe and Mike Mills are backed up by a rinky-dink rhythm track; given drummer Bill Berry's recent departure from R.E.M., the song does not bode well for the band's future. But although efforts by Noel Gallagher and Porno for Pyros ("Cast No Shadow" and "Meija," on disc one), Pavement and Bjsrk ("Type Slowly" and "Hyper-Ballad," on disc two), and Cibo Matto and De La Soul ("Birthday Cake" and "Me, Myself & I," on disc three) fall short of classic status, they are more than spirited enough to get by. Because good-cause albums tend to be listened to once and then shelved for all eternity (see the blurb below), I usually approach them with trepidation--which makes the amount of enjoyment I derived from Tibetan Freedom Concert even more surprising. But I'm still not going to see Red Corner.

Various Artists
The Bridge School Concerts, Vol. One
(Reprise)

Some of the same artists who appear on Tibetan Freedom Concert (specifically Patti Smith, Beck and Eddie Vedder) also turn up on this CD, which benefits an innovative California institution dedicated to children with what the liner describes as "severe speech and physical impairments." But the celebratory feel that marks Freedom is largely absent on Vol. One, replaced by the sort of singer-songwriter earnestness that can turn these projects into chores. The focus is on acoustic presentations, and in capitulating to this concept, the performers slow everything down to a speed closely resembling stasis. You don't expect Tracy Chapman to rock, so the fact that her "All That You Have Is Your Soul" doesn't comes as no surprise. But Ministry's version of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" is so somnambulant that even Jerry Garcia might have been bored by it. Elsewhere, David Bowie's "Heroes" falls flatter than Kate Moss's chest, and Smith's "People Have the Power" suffers from an unexpected energy crisis. A couple of tunes hold up: Tom Petty, who offers "Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)," manages to make the languid setting work for him, Bonnie Raitt's "The Road's My Middle Name" recalls the wonderfully spare blues of her early days, and the Heart spinoff called the Lovemongers does a nice job reproducing "Battle of Evermore" (even Robert Plant can't sound as much like Robert Plant as Ann Wilson does these days). But when even Neil Young, the impetus behind the album, can't light a fire under "I Am a Child," you know you're in trouble. The Bridge School, which can be reached at www.bridgeschool.org, is a great cause, but this record is a bridge not nearly far enough.

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