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After Further Review

Putting the season's major releases to the test.

AC/DC
Bonfire
(Eastwest)

The current theory on boxed sets is that they are primarily purchased by loyal fans of the act in question--and since such folks already own all the band's releases, leftovers from the vaults must be used to induce them to lay out their folding green. For the most part, Bonfire follows this formula closely. Aside from the inexplicable inclusion of 1980's Back in Black, probably the most widely owned AC/DC album in existence, it is made up of unissued live recordings and studio flotsam that hadn't been judged good enough for sale in the first place. Completists will probably be pleased by the lineup, and although it's hard to imagine that dudes who were into Highway to Hell when they were seventeen fit this description, some must. But for anyone seriously interested in re-evaluating these mad Aussies, Bonfire is an expensive way to do it. The first CD, a live-in-the-studio album made for a radio show in 1977, has some of the tunes that made the band's reputation, including "High Voltage," but they aren't really produced in the usual sense; when all of the instruments drop out, leaving only Angus Young's guitar, a palpable emptiness seeps in. The sound is crisp, and singer Bon Scott, who died in 1980, yowls as energetically as ever, but the versions aren't revelatory. Ditto for CDs two and three, recorded in Paris in 1979 and used as the soundtrack for a 1981 concert flick, Let There Be Rock. There's no shortage of song duplication: "Live Wire," "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be," "The Jack," "Whole Lotta Rosie" and "Rocker" all appear for a second time. And although the production is fuller on the latter session, it's also more sodden, less immediate. AC/DC's idea of nuance is to bludgeon you slowly rather than double-time it, and while these raveups don't seem notably weakened as a result, neither will they blow you out of your seat. Finally, the fourth CD, subtitled Volts, deals out rarities that aren't that rare--like "Dirty Eyes," which is nothing more than "Rosie" with different lyrics, and "Back Seat Confidential," an early version of "Beatin' Around the Bush"--along with songs from TNT, High Voltage and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Even so, Bonfire provided me with a good time. Because I never much liked the strangulated screeching of Bon Scott and his successor, Brian Johnson, and because the people I knew who were into the band during its late-Seventies/early-Eighties heyday were absolute morons, I never really gave AC/DC a fair shake. But after listening to this set, I was able to appreciate the group as a spiritual cousin of the Ramones--unsophisticated, dopey, impressively one-dimensional and, most of all, louder than Ethel Merman on crank. Then again, I got my copy of Bonfire for free. Had I not, I probably would have selected a single AC/DC album from the bargain bin and left it at that.

Janet Jackson
The Velvet Rope
(Virgin)

Jackson's last album, 1993's janet., contained her finest moments on wax; it was confident, sexually frank and thematically consistent. But with The Velvet Rope, she seems to be suffering from one of brother Michael's many maladies--a desire to be all things to all people. The album finds her trying on more personas than Sybil, including hip-hop hep cat, soulful mama, adult-contemporary crooner and social commentator, but she spreads herself far too thin. In contrast to the effortless flow of janet., Rope is herky-jerky, directionless. The worst moment is the single "Got 'Til It's Gone," which contains perhaps the single most aggravating use of a sample yet accomplished by professional musicians (Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" is the victim), but it's not alone on the lower end of the scale. Jackson's decision to tinker with the lyrics of Rod Stewart's dreadful "Tonight's the Night" doesn't justify her remake of it, and the several seducers that follow it (even "Rope Burn," in which she pleads to be tied up and dripped with hot candle wax) are so musically nondescript that they bleed anonymously into one another. "Free Xone," a Princey plea for greater tolerance of homosexuality, is livelier (co-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis can still get nasty), but it doesn't add up to much, and "What About" is a sonic mutt; its funky groove and angry words ("What about the times you said you didn't fuck her/She only gave you head/What about that?") are repeatedly interrupted by the sound of waves lapping on a beach and, of all things, a mellow Spanish guitar. Janet would do far better in the future if she would focus her energies on something specific rather than trying to top her boy-diddling big bro. One Jackson like that is more than enough.

Jane's Addiction
Kettle Whistle
(Warner Bros.)

The individuals who art-designed this disc's liner were up front about Kettle Whistle; they placed an admission in plain view that only four of the recording's fifteen tunes are new. But it's still something of a disappointment to discover that the disc is dominated by odds and ends--live tracks, demos and outtakes. The alternate versions of "Ocean Size," Had a Dad," "Jane Says," "Mountain Song," "Been Caught Stealing" and other familiar Addiction fare are okay--how could they not be, given what good songs they are?--but they aren't so radically different as to give you greatly enhanced insight into them. Moreover, two of the "virgin" tracks have been around the block a time or two: "Slow Divers" and "My Cat's Name Is Maceo" were initially laid down in 1986 and 1987, respectively, before being fooled with in the studio again this year. But the other pair of unused compositions (featuring original members Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins, with supplementary bass playing by the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea) deserve your attention. Because it spends a lot of time meandering in an often gentle way, the title cut isn't all that different from much of Farrell's work in Porno for Pyros, but its occasional instrumental flareups spark more flames than usual. Better still is "So What!" a propulsive live workout that sheds the Porno malaise in a burst of crazed guitar gymnastics and vocal exorcism. Whether Farrell has any interest in finally trying to fulfill the act's promise is an open question: In interviews, he's implied that the Jane's reunion was merely a ploy to gain attention for several of his loopy projects. But "So What!" demonstrates that he has a strong foundation on which to build. Kettle Whistle isn't what you'd call the bargain of the season, but if it helps Jane's Addiction become a going concern again, it will have been worth it.

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