So Much for the Afterglow

Art Alexakis is a walking tangle of contradictions, an extremely driven (some say overdriven) ex-drug addict prone to getting snared by life's extremes -- the black and the white, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the living and the dead. As passionate and unsparing in his opinions as he is, though, Alexakis has never been afraid to play the pragmatist when it counted, strapping himself in and letting fate take its course, even if that involved selling out. In other words, Alexakis is the perfect '90s frontman -- and the relentless, Nirvanatized heavy rock of his West Coast power trio, Everclear, is his perfect foil.

Success can do a number on a band's reputation, and in Everclear's case, all it took was one glorious single for the backlash to come riding up Alexakis's ass. That song -- from 1995's Sparkle and Fade -- was "Santa Monica," a liberating fusillade of teeth-rattling volume, pop smarts and sheer willpower backed by a drop dead chant-along chorus that stood the test of repetition. The tune was (to put it mildly) a heady tonic for radio's post-grunge blahs, and predictably, what was left of Everclear's underground credibility (established with one-time indie label Tim Kerr) was yanked up the flagpole with it. It didn't help that Alexakis played the part of the street-smart entrepreneur with an eye on the bottom line more vocally than most.

Now, two years later on So Much for the Afterglow, Alexakis struggles -- and fails -- to come to terms with his newly acquired good fortune. And while Everclear deserves credit for cannily advertising their predicament (one that has become distressingly common in the current "here today, gone tomorrow" alt-rock marketplace) up front, the most enticing thing about this dull follow-up is, alas, its title. Melodies skate by without so much as a hint of authority; power chords pummel but fail to deliver a decisive blow; and, as one mid-tempo charge from drummer Greg Eklund segues into another, the effect is almost anesthetizing.

Alexakis tries to air out his pop sensibilities (pre-fab Beach Boys harmonizing ushers in the release's first track) on Afterglow, but mostly his efforts come up lame and contrived (i.e. the awkward string accompaniment on "Amphetamine" and "Like a California King"). Like some lonely, beatnik millionaire trying in vain to smother his material ambitions with halfhearted melancholy and last minute regrets, Alexakis bumps his shins on one bad rags-to-riches cliche after another. "He'd sell his soul / To make the monster dance," Alexakis sings over a signature marching-band rhythm peppered with horns. "They can't hurt you unless you let them."

Truth is, Everclear followed its own advice to the letter. And for that, they shouldn't have to answer to anyone. They came, they conquered, they basked -- however briefly. Now they want to take it all back -- but it's too late. These days, the fade is as inevitable as the sparkle. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

Janet Jackson
The Velvet Rope

Mariah Carey

Is it a mere coincidence that two of pop music's most angelic, transcendent songstresses each have a new release in the stores -- which, incidentally, they both claim is their most emotional, personal and gut-wrenching project to date -- vying for the attention of listeners? Sure, Mariah Carey's gossamer-winged Butterfly got a three week jump on Janet Jackson's lovesexy The Velvet Rope, but is this really a battle to the high-pitched death, or two gals in search of their creative reaches?

Let's reach and see what's what: Ah, what time can do to a person. It was just 11 years ago that Jackson was putting "nasty" boys in check and telling them "Let's Wait Awhile" on her multiplatinum release Control. Now she's telling those same creeps to tie her up and bring a few extra chicks along for kicks. On The Velvet Rope, Jackson doesn't want you just to read between the lines, but to cross them, break them and, if time permits, snort them. People are already catching the message of the dry-voiced "You," which is supposedly aimed at Janet's big brother Michael, while the next-to-last track, "Special," is supposedly aimed at herself.

Innuendo runs amuck on Rope, and the CD will probably have listeners wondering if Jackson's a liberator of the passionate soul or just one big freakazoid. "Rope Burn" has her moaning and groaning in bouncy ecstasy over getting strapped, while her rendition of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," in which she didn't bother to change Stewart's gender references, may even find her a lesbian following.

Never one to shy away from a concept, Jackson plays on the sexual-discovery stuff she brought to 1993's Janet, and this time around she also brings a message of acceptance and belonging to the proceedings. She exerts the idea that anything can be accepted intimately as well as openly. It's almost like she's saying, "Tear down that velvet rope, and then tie me up with it!" "Twisted elegance" is what the star smolderingly says at the beginning of The Velvet Rope, probably the only release in existence that best describes what it is the very second it begins. (*** 1/2)

Jackson's foray into post-modern swinging seems like space-age evolution when compared to the pop conventionalism of Carey's Butterfly. If The Velvet Rope is the hip choice to have spinning around in your car's CD changer, then Butterfly is the guilty pleasure tucked away under your mattress. Don't be duped by the prissy title -- there's something ghettoish afoot. Why else would Carey recruit Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and his Bad Boy crew to go buck wild on her frumpy first track "Honey," or enlist melodious homies Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Jodeci doppelgangers Dru Hill to join her on a couple of tracks?

It's simple: Mariah Carey wants to be down. Carey's attempt to come straight from the streets on Butterfly is so interesting -- and at times so silly -- that it's not all that bad. We all know that Carey is just about as streetwise as a New York City tourist, so her semi-gimmicky effort to break out of songbird form, especially after her breakup with Sony Music head Tommy Mottola, has some surprising appeal.

The only caveat is why she felt the need to redo, note for note, yelp for yelp, Prince's "Beautiful Ones." (This ties with Ginuwine's throbbing rendition of "When Doves Cry" as the most unnecessary Prince cover of the year.) Not to worry, though: the disc is still mostly made up of the schmaltzy, David Foster-esque ballads that have made Carey famous. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Brooks and Dunn
The Greatest Hits Collection

Fall is here, and it's beginning to smell a lot like money as the music industry gears up for the Christmas onslaught. Rest assured, Nashville superheroes Brooks and Dunn are scrambling to find a prime spot under the tree, and with the simultaneous release of The Greatest Hits Collection CD and video, they're certainly covering all their bases. Sure, B&D's all-too-familiar paeans to romantic comings and goings have a certain handsome gloss and heart-tugging sentiment that no one can blame kicker radio for gobbling up. But ultimately, these greatest hits amount to little more than one monumental cliche after another. Except for the three new tracks tacked on to attract hard-core fans, everything here is already so overly familiar, so played into the ground, that you wonder why anyone would want to waste good leather boot scootin' to them again. (**)

-- Jim Caliguiri

Sweet 75
Sweet 75

Let's get this straight right now: Nirvana has absolutely nothing to do with Sweet 75. While Dave Grohl has taken things in a logical grunge-pop progression with his Foo Fighters, the other half of the Nirvana rhythm section, bassist Krist Novoselic, is responsible for this utter disaster -- which, one can assume, has been thrust upon the public simply because Novoselic happened to be a member of one of the most influential American rock bands ever.

"I'm dirty and cranky / The world's my ashtray," howls Novoselic's cranky cohort, Yva Las Vegas, in "Lay Me Down," and it goes way down from there. Just as Vegas's moniker might conjure images of desolation, corruption and despair, Sweet 75 sounds similarly lonely, dirty and barren. Novoselic's guitar work is a clunky, stuttering affair mired in awkward transitions and tiring, vainglorious solos, while Vegas shrieks like a smoke-choked Linda Perry, waxing woeful, angry and abused in a host of self-defeating tales ("I used to be lovely / But now I'm not") and self-purging psychological profiles.

Only on "La Vida" does Vegas actually bother to carry a tune, and Sweet 75 hits an all-time low with "Poor Kitty," which has the singer screaming herself hoarse. Weirdly enough, Herb Alpert lends his considerable presence to Sweet 75, as do R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Ministry drummer Will Reiflin and producer Paul Fox, all of whom try in vain to clean up this mess. Still, the result is somewhat akin to one of those Robert Altman ensemble outings in which a half-dozen Oscar-caliber actors are looking around at each other for anything resembling a script. (*)

-- Stephen Gershon

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.


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