Sound Check

Great bands breaking apart is about as common in rock and roll as the inevitable reunions of the lousy ones, and true to form, the last decade or so has been a veritable graveyard of wasted potential. The timing of said dissolutions is often impeccable -- either impeccably bad (the Police, the Smiths, Nirvana) or impeccably good (Stray Cats, Men at Work, the Clash). Either way, what seemed like an unforgivable tragedy to fans was frequently a welcomed inevitability to the band members themselves. The fact remains that with time, artists -- being naturally temperamental and egocentric -- tend to go stir-crazy in collaborative environments, and situations that were once fruitful and effortless begin to grow stale and unmanageable.

Occasionally, when a musician bails, it's only temporary -- a little sideline venture to air creative impulses by the band. Much of the time, though, a member's exit is final, and for the group involved, it's often terminal -- particularly when the deserter has been running things all along. This was the case back in 1991 when Paul Westerberg separated from the Replacements, effectively snuffing out the Minneapolis quartet. Infamous for their volatile internal chemistry and drunken on-stage dementia, the Replacements brightened a dim post-punk landscape with a blistering string of mid-'80s releases. But as the group's potent mix of "f"-you attitude, irreverent humor, hooks and intelligence slowly helped destigmatize indie rock in the eyes and ears of the mainstream, Westerberg increasingly began pulling all the strings -- to the point that the Replacements' final release, 1990's touchy-feely All Shook Down, had little of the gritty, full-band interplay that made 1984's Let It Be such a muddled masterpiece of highs and lows.

Around the time the Replacements filtered into radio and MTV, Westerberg gave up passing out on-stage and hurling vomit on the ceilings of recording studios (which he was said to have done during the making of the Replacements' finest release, 1987's Pleased to Meet Me) for a loose version of responsible adulthood. Since then, his writing has become more stifled. The clear-headed, focused Westerberg, it seems, cares a wee bit too much about proper articulation of his ideas, and that burdened his solo debut, 1993's 14 Songs, with an at times insurmountable load of craftsmanship and sincerity.

While that same fussed-over air stiffens parts of the new Eventually, a slightly more discomfiting atmosphere pervades a good portion of it, from the abrupt stylistic shifts and airy production to a renewed sense of unease in Westerberg's lyrics. So where "MamaDaddyDid," "Love Untold" and "Angels Walk" suffer from contrived wordplay and precious tunefulness, "You've Had It With You," "Century," "Trumpet Clip" and "Hide n Seekin' " maintain a level of unhinged volatility that implies Westerberg has gone back to picking both his brain and his gut for inspiration.

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Eventually hints at what's in store for the future on "Good Day," a wrenching tribute to deceased former Replacement Bob Stinson, who lost his battle with drugs and alcohol. His earnest intentions fully exposed by a thin veil of strings and piano, Westerberg pulls off the near impossible -- fashioning a weepy ballad without pandering to base sentimentality. "A good day," he whispers in the chorus, "is any day that you're alive." That simple, telling statement, it seems, could apply just as easily to Westerberg's own newfound stability. Now if he could only find his place in the '90s. (***1/2)

As Westerberg did with the Replacements, Bob Mould dipped a reluctant big toe into the major label waters with his band, HYsker DY, before pulling it out to go solo. He abandoned the bickering crew that HYsker DY had become in 1988, a year after the release of the bulky noise-pop masterpiece Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Newly sober, Mould went on to make a pair of solo albums -- the moving, acoustic-based Workbook and the shrill, emotional roller coaster Black Sheets of Rain. In 1992, he assembled Sugar, a layered, hook-drenched threesome that, like HYsker DY, had a legitimate shot at mass success before Mould pulled the plug last year. Fear of success getting you down, Bob?

Now, Mould is back to playing music by and for himself with Bob Mould. Working at Cedar Creek Recording Studio, not far from his current Austin home, Mould played all the instruments and handled production duties this time around, and like you'd expect from an effort on which the creator has complete control, Bob Mould is often suffocatingly self-absorbed. The CD's ten songs follow a pattern of abrupt mood swings, from the groping desperation of the opening "Anymore Time Between," to the manic surge of guitars lifting the spirits of the mock-analytical "Egoverride," to the spare, acoustic-accompanied whining on the cryptic exercise in jealousy, "Thumbtack."

Unlike on Sugar's Copper Blue and File Under: Easy Listening, on Bob Mould, anguish is not disguised as ear candy, even if a few catchy choruses try to suggest otherwise. Its disillusioned, detached sentiments are handed to the listener raw and bleeding, and, more often than not, the fractured music fits the dour mood. (**1/2)  

It appears Maria McKee is also after some sort of do-it-yourself catharsis on her third solo release, Life is Sweet, on which she not only sings, but also, and for the first time, plays all the guitars. Following the demise of her original band, country-ish trad-wave rockers Lone Justice (yet another premature '80s casualty), McKee and her hefty, multi-grained soprano experimented with lush, confessional pop on 1989's Maria McKee, then switched to a sassier, roots-rock stance on 1993's You Gotta Sin to Get Saved. With Life Is Sweet, she's taken another unexpected turn, this time into a richly theatrical cul-de-sac that recalls David Bowie at his most glam and melodramatic. In fact, you could call Life Is Sweet McKee's Ziggy Stardust, and like that treasured time capsule of contrived '70s extremes, Life Is Sweet works in spite of itself. It's somewhat embarrassing in its indulgences, yet somehow energizing and life-affirming in its sweeping overreach.

But where McKee diverges from the Ziggy formula is in her willingness to reveal herself rather than hide behind some invented persona. Whether confessing a fetish for imperfection on the hauntingly pretty opener, "Scarlover," or documenting her raging internal battles on the flawless "Absolutely Barking Stars," or coming to terms with a crippling emotional addiction on "Human," McKee rarely oversteps thematic bounds. The music may be over-the-top, but the songs, as a whole, aren't. McKee's resolutely human perspective provides the grounding element so often missing in the artists she cites as the inspiration for Life Is Sweet, performers such as T. Rex, Bowie and Queen, who, for all their gifts, aspired to inflate everything, themselves included, to inhuman, larger-than-life proportions. While Life Is Sweet is a ballsy move for McKee, here's hoping her fidgety artistic whims don't wreak havoc on her already fuzzy solo identity. (***)

Yet another on the list of refugees from promising '80s bands cut down in their prime is David Lowery, former sharp-witted front guy for Camper Van Beethoven. Lowery, though, has foregone the me-myself-and-I route for a fresh collaborative environment. The story should sound familiar: soon after CVB finished 1989's Key Lime Pie, arguably its most enduring -- and definitely its most successful -- release, Lowery and the others, at odds over the band's artistic direction, parted ways. A few years later, Lowery found himself a partner in an old buddy, guitarist Johnny Hickman, and they formed Cracker.

CVB's unorthodox, less-than-graceful teaming of disparate elements -- country and western strumming with jazzy improvisation, polkas with punk, the hopelessly sentimental with the mindlessly stupid -- always placed the band a half step ahead of its contemporaries. But Lowery, a simple songwriter at heart, had tired of the off-the-wall approach by the time he sat down to record Cracker's eponymous first CD, an uneven effort that contained both Lowery's most pointed and profound post-CVB statement ("Teen Angst") and some of his most frivolous throwaways. On the follow-up, 1993's Kerosene Hat, Lowery tightened his musical focus, curbed the silly sarcasm and eased up a little on the shouting. His efforts netted Cracker its first huge hit with the subversively catchy pasture-punk dirge, "Low."

At the start of Cracker's new release, The Golden Age, Lowery is back to spitting out semi-serious slogans of discontent. He opens the CD with "I Hate My Generation," a hard-driving, venomous ball of phlegm seemingly dislodged in disgust over his lame thirtysomething peers. While the anti-anthem is a perky way to start things off, it doesn't dictate a one-way direction for the rest of CD. Easily Lowery's most satisfying batch of songs since leaving CVB, The Golden Age bounces all over the place without ever losing its spring -- from groggy, country-inflected ballads ("Big Dipper" and "I Can't Forget You"), to deceptive, hook-laden toss-offs with unexpected treasures of insight ("The Golden Age" and "Useless Stuff"), to swinging, back-porch rockers where Hickman finally gets to show off his considerable chops ("How Can I Live Without You?" and "Nothing to Believe In," which features a fiery Joan Osborne backup vocal).

Lowery has had no problem bragging in public that The Golden Age carries Cracker's most extravagant studio/production price tag to date, even though it hardly sounds that way. Could it be that Lowery is finally at peace with the idea of success? Or maybe it's just that his image as a fussy underground relic is so accepted that he's taken on all the characteristics of contentment. Either way, Lowery has managed to outdo fellow '80s icons Mould, Westerberg and McKee by locating a comfy place to evolve and prosper in the '90s. (****) -- Hobart Rowland  

***** What other band?
**** Prouder than previous
*** Break from the past
** Living off royalties
* Desperate for a reunion tour

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