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Soundgarden
Down on the Upside
A&M

Why is it that while many of Seattle's sons of grunge have dropped down a gear (Pearl Jam), dropped out (Mudhoney) or simply dropped dead (Nirvana), Soundgarden has been able to push forward on all fronts, evolving and, most important, improving? Maybe it has something do with the fact that, of all those tied to that dying trend's first generation, Soundgarden has walked the healthiest growth path, eschewing hype's worst byproducts -- the insurmountable success of a blockbuster debut, the pathos of drug addiction, the self-conscious efforts to remain hip -- for a progression that's favored instinct and self-fulfillment.

Soundgarden started out subversively arty with a green, somewhat caustic, union of heavy metal bombast and unrefined punk anger on 1987's Screaming Life EP; planted itself firmly in the '90s with the heady, dirge-rock panoramas of Badmotorfinger; and moved onward and upward with 1994's Superunknown, a masterful pitting of melody and production against singer/lyricist Chris Cornell's bold, imagistic overstatement. Superunknown was Soundgarden's Nevermind, but unlike Nirvana's hugely successful major-label debut, it came far enough down the road that Cornell and his bandmates were able to remain relatively levelheaded in the face of their newfound commercial clout.

Well in line with that perspective, the new Down on the Upside doesn't seem to worry much about having the same visceral impact as its predecessor. Instead, it possesses the sort of at-ease (for Soundgarden) vibe you'd expect from a band in control of its creative faculties. Upside is more spontaneous and organic than Superunknown. Little, if anything, feels forced. Soundgarden merely goes about the business of finding beauty and wonder in the otherwise motley, miserable and macabre.

Less ginger about flaunting the hard-driving, Zeppelified electric-blooze only hinted at on Superunknown, Soundgarden has, in essence, gone retro without the guilt. The Page/Plant connection is most evident in the writing of bassist Ben Shepherd, who's responsible for the music on two of the CD's most resonant tracks, the starkly gorgeous "Zero Chance" and the moving, acoustic-electric "Dusty." Both round out an arresting four-song opening sequence, which also includes the required small-scale epic with drop-dead catchy chorus, "Pretty Noose," and the pummeling "Rhinosaur." But after coming out of the gate strong, Upside never quite regains its stride, despite a healthy portion of better-than-average material.

As usual, Cornell's arena-filling wail adds a larger-than-life dignity to his gloomy, fragmented prose. It wouldn't be Soundgarden without his ceaseless groans of self-pity, fleshed out in sunny couplets such as "Born without a friend / And bound to die alone." By now, Cornell's struggle with his demons is so imbedded in Soundgarden's psyche that it's almost a casual accompaniment to the group's continuing musical metamorphosis. -- Hobart Rowland

Various Artists
Schoolhouse Rock Rocks
Lava/ABC/Atlantic

The beauty of Schoolhouse Rock in its original Saturday morning run (1973 to 1985) was that the kids watching couldn't tell -- and, frankly, didn't care -- whether the catchy, three-minute cartoon jingles were meant to be commercials, entertainment or something else entirely. That enabled TV youth to learn the natural way: without realizing it, and in between episodes of Scooby Doo and Fat Albert.

Somewhere along the line, though, the Brady Bunch generation became the alternative nation, and the innocence with which they took in Schoolhouse Rock's grammar, history and math lessons was lost. In its place comes the obligatory tribute album, Schoolhouse Rock Rocks -- pleasant enough, but full of the post-modern yuks and missed-the-point nostalgia that aim to celebrate, but instead drain, the joy from childhood memories. If you heard last year's Saturday Morning compilation, then you already know the novelty of '70s kiddie pop done up with punk guitars and sneering vocals. Though it's somewhat interesting to hear Pavement turn "Mo More Kings" into lo-fi kraut-rock, or Moby make "Verb: That's What's Happening" into industrial techno-pop, what's the practical value of recasting an already conceptually complex song about the duodecimal system ("Little Twelvetoes") in Chavez's inscrutable noise rock?

The performers who most successfully preserve Schoolhouse Rock's viability are those who are the most cartoonish to begin with: Ween ("The Shot Heard 'Round the World"), Biz Markie ("The Energy Blues") and Daniel Johnston ("Unpack Your Adjectives"). The problem remains, though: any revamping of these songs implies that Schoolhouse Rock somehow needed to be made hipper. That none of the songs on this CD are better than the originals proves how truly unhip the children of the '70s have grown up to be. -- Roni Sarig

The Cranberries
To the Faithful Departed
Island

An all-too-obvious attempt by the Cranberries to grow up, To the Faithful Departed is, for the most part, naive, highbrow crap. From atop her soapbox, lead singer Dolores O'Riordan leads us through a lengthy, grating tirade, bulldozing past everything from politics (the lamentable "Bosnia") to spirituality (the preachy first single, "Salvation") and death ("I Just Shot John Lennon" -- uh, okay, whatever you say) while dressing them in mediocre melodies and unneeded vocal acrobatics. Thankfully, the Cranberries do take the occasional breather to belt out a couple of sweet pop numbers, but it's too little, too late. Next time, O'Riordan should save the heavy-handed intellectual ramblings for MTV News. -- Joe Hon

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