Hate to break it to you, Kurt, but this is what the movement you popularized has come to--imitations of you by a fifteen-year-old kid from Texas. Ben Kweller is his name, and he's got your style nailed. The throaty vocals, the distorted guitars, the punchy songwriting, the prominent melodies, the monster hooks, the quiet-to-loud dynamics: They're all on display. Of course, there are some areas in which the cloning of the Cobain approach is a bit imperfect--particularly the lyrics. Young Ben's idea of cleverness is epitomized by the junior-high pun captured in the title "Dear Aunt Arctica"; as for the tune's lyrics, they're a mash of nonsense images (the Ku Klux Klan, porno stars, underwear) that he alternately sings or screams with the enthusiasm of a three-year-old playing dress-up in dad's closet. He knows he'll earn more respect if he throws off some intellectual vibes, which is why he mentions Oscar Wilde in the slacker-friendly "The You in Me" and gets multi-syllabic with "Apparition of Purity," a phrase he clearly doesn't understand on any level. But the only times he seems to be doing something other than play-acting are during the NutraSweet-approved "Sugar Free" and the bubblegummy "My Guitar," whose verbal dorkiness ("I love my guitar/And she loves me/I love my guitar/And she won't break up with me") bespeaks a certain pre-pubescent sincerity. Still, you can't hate this stuff, even when you know you should: In "Today's Bargain," for example, the misogyny of the first half of its lyrical hook ("I put that gun to her head/She said, 'Baby, let's go to bed'") seems forgivable when you realize that Ben wrote the couplet that follows it ("Son, you're gonna go blind/If you keep fucking me with your mind") for no other reason than to use the F word. It's all very amusing--just as amusing as Mercury's decision to send to reviewers an irony-laced profile of Kweller from the New Yorker as if it were just another puff piece. Then again, maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. Nobody ever reads to the end of those articles anyhow, do they? And if Restraining Bolt is to Nevermind as James Darren was to Elvis Presley, does it really matter? After all, you're dead, Kurt. They can't hurt you any more than you've already hurt yourself. Or can they?
Come In and Burn
Straight from Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg to your door comes the latest Henry Rollins action figure: Pull his string and he sings, acts, writes books, pumps iron and singlehandedly crushes any visible signs of slackerdom. In other words, he's synergy incarnate, the living embodiment of cross-marketing possibilities, the Schwarzenegger of rock. Oh, yeah--and he's also such a cartoon character that he may soon be reduced to strolling the streets of the Magic Kingdom alongside Goofy and Dumbo. How can Rollins avoid such a fate? By eschewing the endless rounds of self-promotion for which he's famous and working to expand his vision. Come In and Burn exemplifies his creative weaknesses; in its own way, the disc is as predictable as the latest Aerosmith CD. Our hero remains capable of emitting self-consciously deep phrases (like "the darkness swallows me whole," from "Shame"), but there's nothing fresh about any of them. The same can be said about the album's stock routines, which range from the overly solipsistic transcendence-from-suffering motif ("Rejection," "Starve") to the annoying use of second-person grammar to elucidate allegedly ominiscient insights ("The End of Something"). On past offerings, Rollins's trademark screaming and his pumped-up rhythm section (drummer Sim Cain and bassist Melvin Gibbs) overcame such shortcomings with a musical adrenaline rush, but this time around, such efforts sound tired and calculated. Furthermore, titles like "On My Way to the Cage" give off the scent of unintended self-parody. And so does Rollins himself.
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The fact that Bowie, who turned fifty earlier this year, still has a record deal places him in the pop-star hyper-elite alongside Neil Young, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. Such rarefied air often leads to the production of vacuous contract fodder--a description that much of the music Bowie made in the Eighties fits perfectly. (One spin of the Labyrinth soundtrack is enough to send most rock fans off the nearest cliff.) But since 1987, the man behind Ziggy Stardust and Let's Dance has been on a roll. He hasn't made a bad record in a decade--and Earthling, Bowie's fourth full-length foray into electronic dance music (following Black Tie, White Noise and the Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack, both from 1993, and 1995's Outside), is the capstone of his Nineties resurgence. The new disc's immediate predecessors were flawed by the occasional dull track and a combination of silly lyrics and pretentious posturing. But Earthling avoids such deficiencies thanks in large part to a new band featuring brilliant pianist Mike Garson (a veteran of Aladdin Sane), Tin Machine axman Reeves Gabrals and programming wonder kid Mark Plati. The album, which was pounded out in just two months, consists of nine tight tracks that seamlessly blend art rock with contemporary dance beats, and while Bowie the press whore touts it as his drum-and-bass expedition, only the keyboard-driven "Little Wonder" and the irksome, repetitive "Telling Lies" actually fit the bill. In fact, the album's best selection, "Battle for Britain (The Letter)," is as notable for Gabrals's hyper-processed guitar and Bowie's romantic wailing as it is for Plati's frenetic rhythms and the number's skittishly arranged bridges. Elsewhere, Bowie borrows electro beats from his 1996 partners, Pet Shop Boys, on "Dead Man Walking" and brings in longtime collaborator Brian Eno for "I'm Afraid of Americans," a ditty that sports an unexpected dash of self-effacing humor. Earthling hasn't made much of a dent on the sales charts, but that hardly matters; after all, the singer recently made $55 million on Wall Street by selling so-called Bowie Bonds. And creatively, he's doing just fine.