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Van Halen
Van Halen III
Warner Bros.

The loss of a charismatic frontman usually spells trouble for any band, but resilient pop-metal veterans Van Halen seem to have turned that maxim on its ear. Having weathered both the showy, cock-rock posturing of David Lee Roth and the earnest wailing of Sammy Hagar, the group now enters its third career phase. Van Halen's dual challenge: to maintain their elevated position in the market while reconfirming their own relevance amid younger acts that cite them as a primary influence. Talk about a tall order to fill.

It would seem, then, that levelheaded former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone would be an extremely wise choice to take over the lead-singer post in this new VH incarnation, especially after the much-publicized Hagar split and the subsequent MTV debacle with Roth. The public ought to be familiar with Cherone's sugary sweet croon from the hit "More Than Words," and those who actually own an entire Extreme album know that he's also capable of attacking more powerful material. Indeed, Cherone injects some much needed new-guy vigor into the material on Van Halen III, most notably on the hard-charging lead single, "Without You." In turn, Cherone's presence appears to have recharged the creative generators of guitarist and notorious studio fiddler Eddie Van Halen (who even makes his singing debut on the oddly touching ballad "How Many Say I").

Throughout III, heavy-grooving numbers such as "Dirty Water Dog" and "Fire in the Hole" alternate with more ambitious efforts such as "Once" and "Ballot or the Bullet," with Cherone showing a vocal diversity that -- let's face it -- was never a strong point for either Roth or Hagar. And with most tracks falling into the five- to six-minute range, there's more time for bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen to add color to the proceedings.

Even so, III is bogged down by a few clunkers, and when Eddie shreds his solo in the otherwise dull "Year to the Day," it makes one wish he'd approached more of the tracks with that much abandon. Maybe he's just being cautious, overly mindful, perhaps, of the intense attention the album will undoubtedly generate. Common thought is that III is the band's most crucial release, one that will either move VH into the next millennium or leave disappointed fans anticipating a reunion tour.

Taken on its own terms, though, III is a solid effort that should prime the faithful for the band's upcoming road swing and possibly even win a few new converts. Any VH diehard knows, after all, that no matter who's behind the mike, what really matters is the hammering hands of Eddie, a guitar hero who has yet to go completely soft. (*** 1/2)

-- Bob Ruggiero

Spacehog
The Chinese Album
Sire/Warner Bros.

As resourceful British expats slumming indefinitely in Manhattan, Spacehog go out of their way to stand out in a crowd. At times, this punchy, self-important quartet -- quite capably led by the brother/brother team of Antony and Royston Langdon -- is an outright embarrassment, grown-up kids acting out their most gargantuan rock-star fantasies. On other occasions, their seemingly limitless, over-the-top charm and energy result in music that verges on brilliant. Whichever the case, Spacehog rarely fails to cram a multitude of highly distracting, nostalgia-ridden bits into a single, few-minute span.

In truth, Spacehog is such a purposely eccentric beast that it's a wonder they get any love from America at all. But somehow in early 1996, "In the Meantime" -- the ostentatious first single from the band's Resident Alien debut -- made it through the screening process and onto radio play lists to become a surprise hit. Playfully bridging '70s glam and '90s alternative, "In the Meantime" achieved a subtle balance between punk's art-school crankiness and glitter-rock's feigned sophistication -- the same balance that self-styled producer/mentor David Bowie failed to negotiate with Iggy Pop, decades ago. The funny thing is, Spacehog's Royston Langdon, with his pliable delivery and range, can sing a lot like both of them -- that is, when he's not making a display of himself like some liquored-up drag queen. But perhaps the best thing about "In the Meantime" is that it is as immediately gratifying as it is inherently sophisticated, artistry posing as novelty. Even more important, amid all of Resident Alien's gaudy pomp and circumstance, Spacehog never lost sight of the punch line.

Those same qualities govern The Chinese Album: namely, an affinity for the pompous fringes of '70s rock and pop; the frequent inclination to experiment in areas most bands won't even consider; and a sharp awareness of the absurd. As always, there's the irrepressible bassist Royston, whose singing ranges from the outlandish ("Goodbye Violet Race") to the inspired ("2nd Avenue," "Carry On") to the outright bizarre ("Captain Freeman").

But the most unexpected performance on The Chinese Album comes not from Langdon but from R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who contributes a twee guest vocal to the wispy ditty "Almond Kisses." That song also boasts the album's most ludicrous lyric: "Boy's breath is humid to the nipple / His conscience she topples to the floor." It's safe to assume that the members of Spacehog don't have a whole lot to say. But they sure find unusual ways of saying it.

Now, the bad news: The Chinese Album contains nothing as memorable as "In the Meantime" -- although the first single, "Mungo City," a flashy, big-production number in the grandiose space-rock tradition of Ziggy Stardust, comes real close. As does Lucy's Shoes, with its tinkling cocktail piano, liberal dose of wah-wah pedal and bloated orchestration. Indeed, The Chinese Album's sweeping rejection of the here and now makes little sense in today's modern-rock environment -- which is all the more reason to admire its brass. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Spacehog performs Tuesday, March 24, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge.

Madonna
Ray of Light
Maverick/Warner Bros.

It has been a good while since anyone took Madonna seriously -- since she was depicted as a musician. For so long now, her albums have been little more than weak attempts to keep her day job going in case the acting thing fails to pan out. Her last start-to-finish perfect release, Like a Prayer, came almost a decade ago. She proceeded to follow that with missteps (Erotica), mistakes (Bedtime Stories) and misguided arrogance (Evita), until all that was left was Madonna the Mother, the last interesting peg on which entertainment writers could hang their limp stories. The radiant cultural force had become a pale, gray landmark.

Now, with the release of Ray of Light -- her midlife crisis cast in techno's dim glow -- critics once again turn their pens toward Madonna the Musician, and they scramble for the hyperbole; MTV's microphone whore Kurt Loder has treated its release as though he were Edward R. Murrow reporting on the outbreak of world war. It's easy enough to understand the rush to judgment: With its themes of sacrifice and motherhood set against William Orbit's echoes and beats, Ray of Light seems more revelatory than her previous excursions into bedroom funk and Broadway fluff. But do not be blinded by this Ray of Light, because the glare is all surface reflection.

Madonna has become an artist capable of commenting only on herself, a superstar who finds her fame the most interesting subject in the world; yet she's no Bob Dylan or even Kurt Cobain, able to turn the legend's lament into the stuff of universal verity. "I traded fame for love without a second thought," she begins, and from the get-go, Ray of Light reeks of a confessional without revelation. On "Nothing Really Matters," she apologizes for the pursuit of ambitious youth ("When I was very young / Nothing really mattered to me ... I was the only one"), seeking penance for the celebrity she sought so recklessly, so brilliantly. Madonna, born again in religion, wants forgiveness, which itself is a crime; to disavow her career until this moment only sells short her accomplishments.

It's also unfortunate that Madonna chose Orbit when she decided to go "techno." He's not an innovator so much as a remixer who turns radio hits into dance-floor fodder. Were Madonna truly seeking inspiration, she would have sought out Aphex Twin, someone who knows how to draw blood from a keyboard. Instead, Orbit and Madonna have concocted a dreary effort that wastes Madonna's newfound vocal chops -- where she was once a dancer with a singer's aspirations, now she's a singer with a vocalist's prowess -- and confuses effects with affecting.

Ray of Light isn't the intimate, detailed portrait of the artist as grown-up mother; it isn't even a charcoal sketch. Rather, it's just another attempt by its creator to keep up with a Top 40 world passing her by. That's not the sputter of electronica's machinery you hear. It's Madonna, running and out of breath. (**)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Jerry Cantrell
Boggy Depot
Columbia

If grunge was supposed to be the marriage of Mother Punk and Father Metal, on Boggy Depot they've had a child, and it doesn't sound much like Mom. With this muddy souvenir from the same dark, dense swamp where his band's releases commonly reside, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell steps out from the sidelines, and his baby owes more to Black Sabbath than to Black Flag.

But that's to be expected from Cantrell. Here, fierce guitar arpeggios crescendo frequently, and oddly timed distortion slashes against lead-footed, Zeppelinesque grooves. For added drama, quiet passages weighted down with self-involved sentiment give way to the requisite extended jams.

As for the songwriting, suffice it to say that two of the strongest tracks on Boggy Bottom bear an uncanny resemblance to Guns N' Roses. One, "Between," is a power ballad that uses a cross-country trip as its soul-searching metaphor -- catchy, but nothing that hasn't already been done to death. The other, an eight-minute-plus opus called "Cold Piece," features bassoon, piano and saxophone, and sounds a heck of a lot like "Rocket Queen," the final track on the Gunners' Appetite for Destruction. As for the rest of the album: Well, there's no shortage of guitar solos.

In fairness, while Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley has received most of the attention from fans and the media, Cantrell has always done the lion's share of the creating. Boggy Depot is his chance to step out of Staley's considerable shadow. In the process, he's stepped smack into a quagmire of excess.

Of course, that's why guitarists do solo albums in the first place: so the rest of the band can't stifle such indulgences. Just ask the Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha. (* 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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