Down on the Upside

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

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

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

Tiny Tim and Brave Combo

This collaboration should have happened long ago; Brave Combo and Tiny Tim belong together. The cuts here range from wry pre-World War II ballads such as "Sly Cigarette" to Beatles covers, and each sparkles with a giddy style that combines wit and a reverence for musical history. Though often dismissed as novelty acts, the polka band from Denton and Tiny Tim have been, in their own idiosyncratic ways, educational as well as entertaining. Brave Combo's frisky dance tunes are more than just music to bounce along to, at least for those who are interested in song structure and form. And from "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" right on up to Girl's version of "New York, New York," Tim's career has effectively and lovingly cataloged American popular music. Girl may just be the pool-party music of the summer. -- Edith Sorenson

Massive Attack v. Mad Professor
No Protection

For a proper sample of what constitutes great dub music, try this little experiment at home on your multi-CD player. Put Protection, Massive Attack's 1994 trip-hop classic, into the first CD slot (if you don't have the disc, get it) and the new No Protection into the second. Now, play them in spiral mode (first track from both, then second from both, and so on).

You'll start with Protection's title track, a gorgeously languid acid-funk groove with siren vocals by Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn, then move on to No Protection's "Radiation Ruling the Nation," a mix that retains "Protection"'s basic beat and underlying keyboard wash but reconfigures just about everything else. This is the studio work of London's prodigious dub godfather, Mad Professor, who applies his own treatments of Protection's material throughout No Protection. Bits are added, dropped out, accentuated, effected, drenched in reverb and turned inside out until the song disappears and in its place comes a reborn textural soundscape. And so it goes as the originals and reworkings alternate on your CD player.

Educational purposes aside, this listening technique is a pretty good way to hear both CDs. There's a symbiosis: where Protection offers the songs, No Protection gives a sort of discursive aural commentary on them. The latter points out all the obscured details -- the minute percussive rings and beeps, the most mesmerizing bass loops -- and the former provides a context in which to appreciate Mad Professor's tinkerings. Neither is fully realized -- or as good -- without the other.

-- Roni Sarig

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Joe Hon
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig
Edith Sorenson