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The '90s Strike Back

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Major artists from the 1990s return with new albums; should you care?

Various Artists
Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box

(Rhino)

How wrong is it that I'm nostalgic for nostalgia? Remember the good ol' days when the good ol' days took place 10 or 20 years ago? We're not five years out of the 1990s and Rhino Records has already come out with this seven-CD set. At this pace, we'll be nostalgic for breakfast at dinnertime before the decade's out. In one of the accompanying booklet's essays, music critic Jim DeRogatis says, "There is never a good time for nostalgia," but he justifies it -- or something nostalgia-like -- by the end of his essay, anyway.

To Whatever's credit, it doesn't indulge in the faux-clever nostalgia of VH-1's I Love the '80s (and its successors, I Love the '70s and I Love the '90s), looking back with automatic irony at those charmingly lousy ol' days and the endearingly crummy shit we used to like. If anything, the collection verges on too sincere and reverential.

The problem is that both stances are essentially false, and the music collected illustrates that. These tracks don't boil down simple categories; there are great singles like Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart" and the Cardigans' "Lovefool," as well as novelties such as "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred and "Jump" by Kris Kross. There are significant tracks and ephemeral tracks, album artists and one-hit wonders. In short, the music -- like the music of that decade or any decade -- is too varied to reduce to "Wasn't it wonderful?" or "How kooky were we?"

Other curious features include liner notes discussing the importance of Seattle and grunge while Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Hole and Foo Fighters are missing (in their defense, probably due to clearance issues with the labels). Instead, second-stringers Tad, 7 Year Bitch, the Gits, the Melvins and Mudhoney raise the city's flag. They represent the city well -- they probably represent the rank and file of what was going on more accurately than the big boys -- but Nirvana and Pearl Jam introduced them to a wider audience, even if some of the smaller bands formed first.

As for the set itself, this is a great argument for the Whatever box including an explanatory booklet and an iPod. These CDs are more a repository for the decade's music than a series of discs that provides a satisfying, coherent listening experience. Disc 4, for example, opens with White Zombie's "Thunder Kiss '65," Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There it Is)" and Big Head Todd's "Broken Hearted Sailor;" it's hard to imagine buyers so ADD or broadminded as to find that sequence of songs rocks their worlds. The ability to, ahem, jump around the set would be far handier.

Nine Inch Nails
With Teeth
(Interscope/Nothing)

One thing you have to give Trent Reznor credit for is his willingness to 'fess up to his small-minded emotions, and no one has gone farther anatomizing them. It would be nice if time had made it easier for him to articulate the sources that provoke him, but it hasn't, so his jealousy, anger and frustration have a free-floating quality. They just are, which would be far more compelling if that was how we experienced those emotions. It's not, though, and most of us are more interested in what pissed us off than our own pissed-offedness.

You do hear growth in the way Reznor shies away from cheap drama. He is over the penchant he once had for lyrics about bodily defilement. His music has more natural dynamics, working with tension but not to theatrical degrees, and it grows in intensity without spazzing out in screaming tantrums. His ear for the subtleties of texture has always been one of his strengths, and the space in the sound makes it clear just how keen that sense is. Throughout, a little twinkle, a balloon-rubbing grunt and similar sonic touches subtly add a lot, whether it's a light, graceful touch that hints things might not be as grim as they seem, or an air of unease far more affecting than screaming, "Don't you f--king know what you are."

The Wallflowers
Rebel, Sweetheart
(Interscope)

Rebel, Sweetheart prompts a few questions for contemplation in idle moments. Would the Wallflowers have been signed to Interscope if Jakob's last name was Thompson or Smith instead of Dylan? Or, would they have been yet another band trying to distinguish themselves in the alt.country/Americana arena? These questions aren't asked to cast aspersions, but to more accurately situate the band and its charms because they are, at least on first listen, subtle ones.

On the first pass through the album, Jakob Dylan's strained voice and limited range blurs into the strum of electric guitars. The songs themselves sound like generic modern folk rock, with the band as professionally uninteresting as the stiffs behind Adam Duritz in Counting Crows. On subsequent listens, though, the songs become more distinct and the parts are easier to separate. Dylan's vocals become clearer, and the hooks emerge with them.

That said, this CD is a rather restrained pleasure. It could use more songs that charge as "Back to California" does, or that have an uplifting melodic line as "Days of Wonder" does. It could use more lyrics as memorable and audible as "God says nothing back / but, 'I told you so.'" It would benefit from a first half as musically distinctive as the second, where rhythmic differences and dynamics are more pronounced. Really, there is a lot to like on Rebel, Sweetheart, but it takes a little patience to get to it.

Oasis
Don't Believe the Truth
(Epic)

The charm of Oasis -- if you ever found it charming -- was that the members are music fans made good. Almost every musical idea is secondhand, but the Gallagher brothers lifted from other records the way we'd like to think we would -- with drunken bravado and insolence. Don't Believe the Truth replaces the bluster of the band's late-90s albums with a psychedelic vibe throughout. It sits better, but it's no (What's the Story) Morning Glory?

The difference is the lack of melodies. The best tunes on that album may have come from British football club fight songs, but they were so memorable that pubs full of drunken fans could sing them before or after a match. It's no surprise they made great singles re-written as "Wonderwall" and "Look Back in Anger," but there's nothing that immediate on the new album.

Complaining about the debts Oasis owes other bands, particularly the Beatles, is a little like complaining that it's hot in summer. It's the nature of the band, though it's fair to observe that the "borrowings" this time border on samples. There's a "Street Fighting Man" vocal line here, a "Tomorrow Never Knows" drum part there, but Oasis shows growth by expanding its influences to lift the "Waiting For the Man" piano part to provide a bed for Dylanesque lyrics on "Mucky Fingers." Philosophically, I find it cheeky and fun, but it's also distracting, reminding listeners of other, better songs on other, better albums.

Audioslave
Out of Exile
(Interscope/Epic)
Audioslave is not technically a '90s band, but when Chris Cornell, ex-singer for Soundgarden joined the Zack de la Rocha-less members of Rage Against the Machine, they formed a band that effectively synthesizes the best of two bands that did a lot to define what became the mainstream rock sound of the decade. On the band's second album, Cornell's big, sincere voice is front and center, with an air of sadness underpinning every vocal, even the affirming "Be Yourself." Tom Morello is a far more agile guitarist than Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, so the riffs are leaner -- intense without being weighty -- while drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford are more powerful for not having to juggle hip-hop, metal and punk as they did in RATM. In short, Audioslave does what it does really well; how much it means to you depends on how deeply you feel Cornell's existential melancholy.

Billy Corgan
TheFutureEmbrace
(Warner Bros.):
You could deal with Billy Corgan's pretensions in Smashing Pumpkins because they were mitigated by crushing riffs or a melody as good as "1979." On TheFutureEmbrace, you have to find his whining dramatic or a sign of emotional depth because the only memorable tune here is a cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" with the Cure's Robert Smith singing harmony vocals.

It's possible that more of the album could be attractive, but Corgan lays in enough sonic murk to obscure all but the most obvious of songs. His guitar and many of the keyboards have a fuzzy wash to them, making tracks feel embalmed in the electronic equivalent of amber, or like heirlooms in some future granny's parlor. That sort of preciousness isn't new to Corgan, but when he rocked, it was tolerable and often engaging. Here, it's just indulgent.

The Melvins
Mangled Demos From 1983
(Ipecac)

This collection of demos documents the first incarnation of the band, and it's for fans only. At this point, the Melvins was a punk band with metal leanings. It had yet to pioneer sludgy tempos or explore the pleasures of musical perversity, though there are hints of what the band would become in the processed guitar and vocals on "The Real You." The best reason to check this out is a recording of the young band's appearance on an Elks Lodge Christmas broadcast, complete with commentary by the hosts.

Foo Fighters
In Your Honor
(RCA)

This two-disc set is split into a hard disc and a softer disc, but the hard disc is really unconvincing. The guitars are big more than hard, so they command sonic space, but not impact. You don't feel them. This hasn't always been the case with the band. Dave Grohl has, after all, drummed behind a crusher like Kurt Cobain, and in Washington, D.C., hardcore bands. The guitar sound on In Your Honor is the sound of somebody, probably someone at the record company, hedging his or her bet.

The songs on the hard disc are generally pretty good and poppy, recalling '80s Cheap Trick. Grohl sings them hoarsely, which I assume is supposed to signify hardness, but all it does is reduce his range to a handful of notes, which makes the songs sound similar. His hoarse, full-throated singing also eliminates any dynamics, as every song and line sound equally intense.

The softer disc trades more effectively on who Dave Grohl has become. He has developed the image of an affable celebrity, and the slower songs allow his charisma to come through. He can almost obscure the fact that he has enough ideas for two full CDs, though not necessarily two discs of good ones. That really isn't that big of a deal in the era of iPods, and there are four or five good songs a disc, which almost seems reasonable.

The album's concept hamstrings these tracks as much as it does the first disc, unfortunately. These self-consciously spare tracks need greater lyrical depth from Grohl or more interesting arrangements from the band. Instead, we're left with a celebrity singing some words in songs played with a studied, wan quality.

Despite all that, In Your Honor almost gets by on his charisma, anyway.

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