Straight On Till Morning
Since the birth of rock and roll, the rise of teen idols has been a surefire indicator of a terrible period in popular music--and indeed, the recent successes of acts like Hanson and Robyn (see review on page 92) have come at a time when the rock scene is as wretched as it's been in recent memory. As was the case during the Fabian years of the late Fifties and early Sixties and the Donny Osmond blight of the Seventies, innovation and moxie have been replaced by blatant redundancy and shallow professionalism. Recordings that suffer from these flaws are tiresome to review; complaining about skilled but hackneyed musicians spinning out flabby, unimaginative variations on styles that weren't all that fresh in 1972 can get old after a while. But since critics don't go into suspended animation during boring cycles such as this one, they find themselves in the position of analyzing such dross simply because it's popular. Moreover, plenty of scribes fall into the trap of overpraising a disc that is clearly second-rate in order to avoid being viewed as a hopeless misanthrope. But not me. I'm drawing a line in the sand right here, right now--and Straight On Till Morning made me do it. You see, I listened to this snooze-worthy patience-tester from beginning to end, and after being subjected to well over an hour of relentless blandness, I discovered that (surprise) there was nothing new to say about it. John Popper's singing is good enough to get him a gig with the reunited Canned Heat, but that's about it; his harmonica playing, while undeniably virtuosic, often has a striking soullessness about it (at times, it almost sounds like a synthesizer); his moronic lyrics, epitomized by "It's a tool/And it's cool/And hell, I ain't no fool to screw the rule," from the aptly titled "Business As Usual," contain fewer bright ideas than the average Bob Dornan speech; and the band's distended, solo-laden boogies go where jam practitioners have gone innumerable times before--and they don't bother to take a different route to get there. So why bother even talking about these guys? I mean, what's the point? People thick enough to like this stuff will buy it no matter what I say, and those who recognize it for the played-out piece of product that it is don't need me to confirm their good taste for them. I'll lend an ear to the next Blues Traveler album, and I'll check out the next offerings from other similarly banal combos as well, because I believe that listening to some of every recording that lands on my desk is an important responsibility. Likewise, I'll be happy to figuratively eat these words if, by some bizarre twist of fate, Popper and company come out with something more intriguing than their past efforts. But if their subsequent CDs are not essentially different from Morning--and I strongly suspect that they won't be--I will not discuss it in these pages. In other words, this is the last Blues Traveler critique I'll have to write in the foreseeable future. The sound you hear is me jumping for joy.
If insurgent country is going to replace grunge as the Biggest Thing in music, Wilco and Son Volt won't be able to shoulder the burden by themselves. Fortunately, Oxford, Mississippi's Blue Mountain is poised to help. Its 1995 debut, Dog Days, was a fine nod to Neil Young's Harvest period, replete with ragged guitar riffs and country pride, but Homegrown is an even better, darker turn. The opener, "Bloody 98," has more in common with the music of Denver's 16 Horsepower than it does with any of the more accessible country-rock ensembles, while raw-boned offerings such as "Black Dog" and "Last Words of Midnight Clyde" are steeped in Southern mythos. It's an identity Blue Mountain wears well; Cary Hudson's rough-hewn vocals lend themselves perfectly to bleak sketches of rural life or more upbeat tracks like the unshakably melodic "Generic America" and the downright bucolic "Babe." The CD is not perfect: The absence of bassist Laurie Stirrat's fragile backing soprano from all but a few tracks is lamentable, and the songwriting in general can't quite evade the been-there-done-that criticism that's often laid at the door of "new" roots rock. But the group is not nearly as derivative as Wilco, and the quality of its latest work suggests that it's moving in an interesting direction. Blue Mountain may never become as popular as Oxford's most famous export, John Grisham, but with Homegrown, the band has established a new peak.
Why are so many singers getting in the way of their songs these days? The guys from the Verve Pipe and Live are bad enough, but at least their guitars are equal partners. Sexsmith, by contrast, is a more passive-aggressive type, overdubbing his croon-so-mild in order to put his arrangements in the background, and while his vocalizing can seem pleasant for a song or two, it soon begins to grate. Because the tunes resemble Brian Wilson outtakes, they're not bad in themselves. But the heartaches of a "quirky" singer whose style suggests a cross between a stone-cold-sober Steve Miller and David Gates with even less testosterone can produce nothing but a headache over an album's length. Sad without sweetness, quiet without thoughtfulness.
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Robyn Is Here
There's a JonBenet Ramsey aspect to this trollop from Stockholm. Although she's eighteen, her features have a slightly pudgy, baby-fat quality about them that's apt to appeal equally to pedophiles and youngsters in her prime demographic. As such, she's an ideal candidate for instant stardom, and the folks at RCA have done an admirable job of packaging her for the masses. Of course, Robyn Is Here is extraordinarily negligible: flirty singing, tinny, robotic melodies, PG words (e.g., "I'm the bomb and soon I'll explode...I'm gonna take our destiny/And turn it into freaky reality," from "How"), and hooks the size of Suge Knight's ammunition bill. But its very disposability is what makes it both easy to ignore and unexpectedly tolerable. Christ, I liked it better than the new Blues Traveler album. I think I'll go smoke some crack now.