Sound Check

The idea of love in rock and roll isn't particularly novel -- it's been addressed to death by everyone from Buddy Holly to Kurt Cobain. Writing a good love song is cake, right? Tom Petty has worked a trillion variations on the theme and still managed to maintain his respectability. But be forewarned: try to sound heartfelt, and you may find yourself choking on your own sincerity. Try to sound too direct, and you could come off forced and pushy. Come off too blunt, and you end up joining Liz Phair and Lords of Acid in the out-to-offend category. So where's the happy medium? Green Day's strategy of hiding the weepy stuff under a mountain of guitars is one option. But then again, how many songs about masturbation can be conjured up before that form of self-expression turns cold?

Romance has always had its bristling and banal sides. For the latter, sample the one-dimensional world of the ultra-sincere Rembrandts, playing off a McCartney-soaked vibe already done to death by Squeeze, Crowded House and more recent bands such as the Grays. But where Crowded House's Neil Finn counters his tasteful arrangements with unexpected lyrical turns, the Rembrandts lack the ingenuity to steer away from the typical on their third release, L.P. (hasn't the simulated sound of needle on vinyl that opens this CD been done to death?). The Rembrandts -- songwriters Phil Solem and Danny Wilde -- have an eye for the obvious, and they've parlayed this marketable trait into a few hits, the latest being the forgettable perk-fest, "I'll Be There for You" (the theme from Friends), tacked conveniently on the end of the new CD.

Not surprisingly, most of L.P. aspires to be a good deal more substantial than fodder for a hip ensemble comedy, which is admirable, though it hardly makes up for the album's mediocrity. L.P.'s tales of shacking up and breaking up are pretty much run of the mill. Lines such as "I'm drowning in your tears / they roll down your face like falling rain," and "Baby don't you know I'll be your man as long as I am breathing" simply slide off the preciously familiar acoustic-based melodies. It would help if Solem and Wilde had something to run on about. Scan the titles, and you'll see the point: "Don't Hide Your Love," "This House Is Not a Home," "The Other Side of Night." Frankly, they're just too sun-tanned and industry-minded to have anything compelling to say.

Hard to believe, but Cracker producer Don Smith was behind the boards on this one -- guess that's a testament to the chameleon-like quality of the profession. Granted, Cracker and the Rembrandts have little in common, but still, Smith could have worked with these guys to bring to L.P. some of the rich organic qualities that made Kerosene Hat such a playful stab at white-boy blues. Instead, this album's polite production is a whole other animal, and a tame one at that.

Like Lowen and Navarro, a songwriting team that also specializes in this sort of mock-confessional style, the Rembrandts might be best advised to stay behind the scenes and rely on more compelling performers to convey their white-bread muse. After Pat Benatar turned the meek "We Belong" into a hit, Lowen and Navarro ventured out from behind their publishing deal. Two albums and a measly few thousand units later, it turned out to be a mistake. But then again, they never had a shot at the Friends theme. (*)

On the coarser side, impending breakups and spent emotions ("It's cold and I'm old and you're giving me more than I need") litter Fig Dish's first long-player, That's What Love Songs Often Do. Rumor has it that chief songwriters Rick Ness and Blake Smith met in a mosh pit at a show by a Cheap Trick cover band, which shows that even indie rockers (Ness) and death metal kids (Smith) can find some common ground.

Pulled from the same Chicago scene as Veruca Salt, the quartet counters its bummer factor with piles of feedback, well-crafted hooks and a coy sense of nonsense -- the latter evident in the CD's clever minimalist packaging, which on the back has an illustration that shows, in childlike fashion, the step-by-step folding of an origami disaster. (You have to see it to appreciate it.) Raging anthems of co-dependency such as "Bury Me" and "Nimble" carry this CD through murkier moments that threaten to drag the emotional energy down to a self-pitying whimper. That's What Love Songs ...'s thematic ringer is "Quiet Storm King," which boasts the reassuring line, "I believe that we will last a long time," countered with the obtuse cool-guy response, "There is no place I'd rather be than nowhere." Remember, mushy is okay in the '90s. Just counter it with a little cynicism. (***)

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Hobart Rowland