Counting Crows
Recovering the Satellites

Back in 1994, when Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones" was suffocating the airwaves and frontman Adam Duritz was every alternative music publication's sad-eyed punching bag, it was easy enough to despise Duritz's self-important, faux-beatnik persona. His dreadlocks were phony (at the time, he admitted to having hair extensions), his fringe leather jacket a diabolical annoyance and his pants in desperate need of a belt.

Only problem was, Duritz had proven himself to be a topflight songwriter on August and Everything After. Even if the more skeptical weren't buying Duritz's accouterments, it was difficult to deny his CD's uniform excellence. As simple as it was to razz the Crows, it was just as easy to fall prey to their Pacific Coast brand of folk rock and Duritz's tales of feckless characters, dislocated lives and contorted emotions. True, August rarely rocked out, but it did roll along quite nicely.

By contrast, Counting Crows kick-start the follow-up Recovering the Satellites with a trio of mildly edgy rockers -- "Catapult," "Angels of the Silences" and "Daylight Fading." From there, they stir things around a bit, experimenting with different instruments, dabbling in various textures, roughening up the edges of August's occasionally redundant melancholy feel. Producer Gil Norton slathers on extra distortion and tremolo, bits of Mellotron and piano, the occasional 12-string Rickenbacker, even a full string section on a few tracks, fattening up the band's sound without overinflating it.

Unfortunately for the music, Duritz's sorry lyrics on Satellites are enough to deflate anything. Duritz has retreated so far into his me-dimensional shell ("I wanna be the knife that cuts into my hand," "Well I'm all messed up / That's nothing new") that he's speaking to no one but Duritz, whining when he should be resonating. By the time the singer finally gets over himself -- nine songs into the CD with the Van Morrison-esque shuffle, "Another Horsedreamer's Blues" -- you may already be fantasizing about shearing off Duritz's dreads and stuffing them into his mouth. Anything to stifle the relentless stream of self-indulgent lament. In fact, hand me the scissors. (** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

The post-mortem release of Nirvana material, following Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide, is proceeding with remarkable restraint. The mostly acoustic MTV Unplugged in New York disc was released in late '94, and it's only now, two years later, that this second posthumous release is hitting the shelves. Like Unplugged, it's culled from live performances, this time of the fully amplified sort that defined most people's firsthand experiences with the band. And, again like Unplugged, this release fills a previously unfilled hole in the band's catalog, and therefore has a reason -- aside from a necrophilic profit motive -- to exist.

Contrarian rhetoric for the sake of contrarian rhetoric is no more admirable that blindly received wisdom, and the plain fact of the matter is that From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is another great blast from a band that recorded nothing worse than Incesticide, itself a not bad little toss-off of B sides. Wishkah serves nostalgia, yes, but it also gives fans the full-on live release they (bootleggers aside) never had. Further, it proves that Nirvana was a better band before (and after) Butch Vig made them millionaires.

The only place in the Nirvana catalog you'll find anything that sounds like heavy metal is on the Vig-overproduced Nevermind, and it's the material culled from the Nevermind-inspired tours that gets the best reinterpretation on this CD. Take the studio-loop compression-punch away from "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and you get back a good measure of the raging slop train that made Nirvana a passion for so many in the first place. The band may have come to loathe the familiarity of its own verse-chorus-verse structures and whisper-to-crash playing, but in a room full of people, it worked like hell. (****)

-- Brad Tyer

Original Broadway Cast Recording

Into Broadway's creative vacuum of revivals, movie adaptations and Hollywood star vehicles comes Rent, the story of squatters, junkies, performance artists, struggling musicians, drag queens, aspiring film makers and HIV-positives. Undoubtedly the pop cultural event of the year, Rent has already won four Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps more important, it threatens to bring substance back to the Great White Way.

Transposing Puccini's 100-year-old opera La Boheme into modern-day bohemia (19th-century Paris' Left Bank becomes late 20th-century New York's East Village; the scourge of tuberculosis becomes the plague of AIDS), Rent celebrates life among the young, sick and unconventional. While Broadway shows are hardly the place for authentic portrayals of the latest marginalized hipsters, composer Jonathan Larson (who died at age 36, days before his musical opened) managed to sculpt vivid characters and scenes. And by telling a socially relevant story of living without the guarantee of a future (renting, that is), Larson does his own little bit to define an X'ed generation.

For the majority of us who won't be seeing Rent any time soon, this original cast recording is more than just an after-show souvenir. Well-packaged with a complete libretto, the two-disc set is worthwhile on its own. Full of tunes that are funny and catchy, inspiring and touching, smart and hip and not overly sentimental, Rent mixes show-tune pop with elements of rock, R&B, dance, gospel and tango for one of the best releases of the year. At worst, Rent is the Hair of the '90s; at best, it's the finest rock opera in decades. (****)

-- Roni Sarig

The Monkees

If new Monkees product -- the first to include all four original band members since their '60s heyday -- isn't the ultimate "alternative," what is? Such a bad idea couldn't be anything but cool, and come now, it was inevitable, wasn't it?

While the whole premise may seem a bit of a lark, the silly thing is, Justus is actually pretty good -- in fact, it's pretty excellent. Written, produced and played by Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, Justus might be seen as a reminder that the Monkees ended up being more than the Prefab Four they were in the beginning; they ended up as an actual band. Nesmith's brusque, gritty "Circle Sky" (from 1968's Head), is Justus' lone remake; the remaining songs sound as if they were written by guys pushing 50 and recorded by guys pushing 15. And yet somehow the contrast works. Jones, whose singing rests a vocal notch behind Ringo Starr on the ladder of warbling '60s survivors, comes off surprisingly juiced and inspired; Dolenz's mildly cynical ebullience remains intact; and Tork's guitar playing bristles with tense energy throughout.

Can Justus dwarf the image of Robert Plant screeching over Jimmy Page's strummed Moroccan guitar as the epitome of '90s reunions? Probably not, but it doesn't hurt to dream. (****)

-- Gerard Choucroun

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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Gerard Choucroun
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig
Brad Tyer