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Phallus in Wonderland

There is but one reason why John Mayer will always be John Mayer, and that’s because John Mayer is the only one who can do John Mayer. Which is not to say he’s an original, as much as that the Berklee School of Music chops John Mayer flashed on his 2001 debut, Room for Squares, can’t be translated via a subway busker’s fakebook. So, whereas the ’70s singer-songwriter tradition churned out material that provided the most efficient means for a vocabulary-deprived young man to feign sensitivity—not to mention scoring copious amounts of tail—any swoon that John Mayer inspires won’t ever be soaked up by some two-chord acoustic-strumming putz in a burlap poncho.

But his appeal isn’t simply about being more cherubic, and less fraught, than Cat Stevens or James Taylor or Paul Simon. Fact is, Mayer isn’t cut from a dormitory troubadour cloth at all. Rather, he’s the product of an era where guitar-school pedigree alone can’t possibly cross over to pop stardom. But that’s not to say he’s restrained from a persona that’s completely and utterly full of itself.

All those sweet nuthins heaved on “Your Body Is a Wonderland” were about his gratification, see—besides, a gal ain’t gonna provoke that deluge of boudoir aphorisms by showing off her hipbone in public. A song title like that couldn’t possibly work as a construction-worker catcall.

Modesty gets damned, however, for the first single from Heavier Things—”Bigger Than My Body,” a ham-handed, palm-chafing, kitten-killing, unsaturated wank with plenty of licks, none of which are directed at open wounds. Unlike Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, Mayer offers no hypersensitive melodrama for the sorority sisters to chant along with. His watered-down Stevie Ray Vaughan side makes him less reprehensible than dehydrated coyotes like Pete Yorn or Elliott Smith, aligning instead with the imperious smirk of Dave Matthews or David Gray, only with a full head of hair. Yet, this 10-song disc leaves one wishing that Mayer disposed of the deep-diaphragm incantations on half its tracks in favor of spacious instrumentals, even if such a tactic would counter the historical dilemma faced in marketing any fretboard fetishist to the masses. Whether he’s staring down breakup-induced despair (“Split-Screen Sadness”) or pondering the day he gets divorced (“Homelife”), sometimes the words get in the way. While he’s technically adept at playing the blues, it’s perfectly clear the only heartache Mayer knows how to emote comes the morning after a night of hearty partying. But would a fella this cute really be that disingenuous?

So unexpectedly, what a generation ago might’ve streamed under the rickety bridge between smooth jazz and new age—or Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—has become perfectly positioned for the teenpop fallout. The first widely heard ditty from Mayer, “No Such Thing,” rousted about holding bittersweet expectations for one’s high school reunion—a lyrical premise that’d only hold water with a certain age group in a stubborn job market. While the thematic schematic of Heavier Things packs enough languor to brace his adoring audience for the imminent sucker punch of a quarter-life crisis, it doesn’t mean Mayer is done with smug.

For that reason, “Daughters” boasts an intriguing theme—a sideways “Cat’s in the Cradle” casting an evil eye toward parental units who’ve downloaded their grief on girls who, in turn, are inevitably smitten by the kind of rock star John Mayer represents. Which is to say a dude who can at least pretend to grasp the concept of contemplation, even if he’d rather be noodling on the Stratocaster than filling the emotional holes carved by a deadbeat dad. Little do Mayer’s most ardent adorers yet know, but the biggest problem with falling for a guy who’d rather not deal with baggage is that he’s got a massive ego of his own still left to unpack. Heavier things, indeed.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Rob Zombie’s Baby Brother’s Band Grasps For a Fake Revolution

Them faux-vintage “CCCP” T-shirts sported by Powerman 5000’s spiky bleached frontman Spider One—still dining out on the two-and-a-half-note joke that was big brother Rob Zombie’s cartoon crunchcore—hearkens back to headier days. Like those 17 seconds, 17 years ago, when the coexistence of Billy Idol’s sneer with the high hilarity of Sigue Sigue Sputnik felt more epochal than Generation X’s entire back catalog.

Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” KO’d all lesser rap-metal angst mutations, which the Powerman five weren’t terribly good at to begin with. So they’re now gasping for, and grasping at, a marketable suburban Situationism—such as gobsmacking the Vines’ “Get Free” with the gratuitous assertion that “living so free is a tragedy.” And take these song titles, please: “Theme to a Fake Revolution,” “A Is for Apathy,” “Song About Nuthin’ “—perhaps the biggest thing a-matter is the DreamWorks label (who’ve kept P5K on the roster since the mid ’90s) appearing where a Soviet-era Melodiya ought to be.

While the bleak sloganeering gets toned down for Transform‘s back end, the album’s plodding prog crust only accentuates the odd infectiousness of P5K’s glib, videogame-friendly fist-pumpers. Just imagine a Glasnost-era rock band transplanted to 2003, forever out of step, forever in (bootleg) blue jeans.

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Big With the Kids

Is it just me, or has the median age for post-postmodern rock stars been getting younger? How else to justify all those fawning profiles of suburban scofflaws Sum 41 making out like they invented disorderly conduct? Sure, it all comes down to what the marketing execs call “positioning,” like how the Sums’ video for the hooliganistic “Still Waiting” carves into the Strokes/Hives/Vines, while their concurrent spoofs of mid-’80s metallic bombast seem lost on the band members themselves, let alone their desired audience. If “rock” is indeed “back,” who can tell the difference between the mooks and the mockers? Part of the confusion might be music journalism’s tilt toward pretending like all the writers are under age 25, too. So, while Puddle of Mudd‘s “Blurry,” which topped both Billboard‘s year-end Mainstream and Modern Rock Tracks charts for 2002, might be a great song to have a midlife—or any other decidedly grown-up—crisis to, you’d sure never know it from reading Rolling Stone of late.

The recent Kurt Cobain necrophilia is a reminder that the flannel brigade of a decade ago pricked up ears significantly older than the artists themselves. Sum 41’s unyielding yelps, however, help ensure that the bar remains low, all-ages style. They’re effectively the Offspring without pesky potbellies getting in the way. Which means their Canadian football fight songs can be embedded with anti-technology tracts even as their PlayStation-induced ADD seizure spins into hyperdrive—and the target demo doesn’t notice the contradiction. When not lathering with the corporate punk spittle, they tilt at windmills in shrill homage to Iron Maiden. But their grinding guitars pose no threat to the bona fide bombast of, say, Disturbed. Sum 41’s bark and bite become diminished by their inability to growl.

At the turn of the century (three long years ago), back before Korn’s Jonathan Davis pursued singing lessons to get his primal trauma taken more seriously, the likes of Sum 41 could always compensate for emotive lack by biting off Licensed to Ill. The biggest pop hit from that era was, in fact, Crazy Town‘s “Butterfly,” which prompted my own pushing-30 epiphany that music by men festooned with tattoos was no longer for me to understand. Paul Oakenfold must have felt that generation gap closing, too, because he tapped the band’s Shifty Shellshock for the flighty confection “Starry Eyed Surprise.” In turn, the churlish angst of Crazy Town’s own recent “Drowning” sounds outmoded, particularly after Linkin Park successfully grafted visceral Pink Floyd-style pomp on the same formula. Still, it’s more appealing than the recent thudding efforts of Papa Roach, whose second album failed to ignite in spite of a pricey tie-in with Pepsi Blue—a drink whose name implies an anti-antidepressant. But the berry-flavored fizz did help the career of Sev, whose “Same Old Song” pits a sub-Limp Bizkit cheer against the chanting of Benedictine monks—who haven’t charted this high since, oh, 1994. On their heels comes Trapt‘s “Headstrong,” nu-metal for boppers not quite prepared to surrender the pinup affability of boy bands. You know Trapt aren’t vying for the affections of neo-prog Mudvayne fanatics when their singer, Chris Brown, feels Genesis got good only after Phil Collins took the mic.

So while the office-casual clothes and sullen stares might look the same, don’t confuse Trapt for Taproot, given how the latter are all about channeling Layne Staley. The ghost of Alice in Chains may well be warbling along on “Poem.” (And, just in case you find their tortured shtick too subtle, they have another tune called “Art.”) Yet another similar act, Cinder, resort to luring the actual Scott Weiland into the studio to collaborate on a number called “Lush,” which is stylistically indiscernible from Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush.” The only difference is, these seventh-generation grunge acts exploit the tragic flaws of their forebears to elicit the listener’s sympathy. Not even Creed are that callous.

In sharp contradiction come Sparta—again, not to be confused with either Trapt or TapRoot—splinter group from retired rock saviors At the Drive-In. (It’s unclear where the Afros went.) Their “Cut Your Ribbon” is a ruthless chastisement that leaves shards of shame in its wake. Saliva‘s Josey Scott—a burly reformed rap-rocker—attempts an indictment of domestic abuse on “Always,” yet (probably on purpose) the ditty risks getting embraced as a moon-eyed make-out anthem in the misinterpreted tradition of “Every Breath You Take.” Better that respectability-seeking schlockmeisters squint inward for the sake of flagellation. Slipknot leatherface Corey Taylor lays down his blood-spattered battle-ax for his alter ego Stone Sour‘s power ballad “Bother,” setting his unrepentant misanthropy to strings, knowing that kids seeking bleak contemplation don’t need a silver lining.

That message, unfortunately, failed to get telegraphed across continents, given how South African trio Seether‘s “Fine Again” is a cockamamy recovery anthem that makes you wish Nickelback and all their windbagging associates had been around to pledge that they ain’t gonna play Sun City. It’s probably better that other continents run off with the bombast baton, in order for trend speculators to get dividends on all that Dashboard Confessional and Unwritten Law stock they bought last summer. In the opposite corner await new wavey popsters such as the All-American Rejects and OK Go, swaddled in synths, gambling that the Next Big Thing will be more Eno than emo.

Audiovent‘s sun-kissed shag shuffle is courtesy of the brothers of two members of Incubus—time will tell if they tap into the 12-to-24 consciousness deeper than did similar sibling bands of Quiet Riot or Extreme. Likewise, Chevelle‘s “The Red,” a recent K-Rock staple, makes one nostalgic for when a band comprised of three brothers was more like the Beach Boys, or at least Hanson. Instead, it’s another diluted Deftones. Ditto with TRUSTcompany‘s “Running From Me.” Seems that if you just whisper, you’ll seem foreboding enough to share the airwaves with Eminem.

But what the “The” groups delivered in 2002 was freneticism—something that will doubtless be simulated by numerous major-label signings this year. (First at bat: “My Goddess” by the Exies.) The triumph of the hysterical over the heretical, after all, is what we aging Gen X’ers trekked out to watch Axl Rose for. These newer rock hopefuls behave like they’re yearning to break out of a restraint that isn’t there in the first place—but if they didn’t pretend it was, they would have no case (not to mention no teenage audience), dig? But with anarchy reigning in all forms of media, does any chaos remain for a guitar group to convey?

At least Loudermilk have the right notion out of the gate, being a former Guns N’ Roses tribute band, giving them a curator’s appreciation of eyelined debauchery. Like all the greatest glam bands, though, they can’t write a catchy tune. GN’R’s recent tour opener CKY‘s growling “Flesh Into Gear” piles on the sludge with a dollop of Moog, amounting to the Jackass era’s equivalent of Blue Öyster Cult. Then there’s the Used, a combo from Salt Lake City whose crazily hoarse frontman Bert McCracken—also Ozzy’s aspiring son-in-law—seizures through songs like “The Taste of Ink.” Oh, the ad copy for the Used’s album boasts of how their “sheer intensity” has kept them from being invited back to club or concert venues. Works for me. I’ve gotten too old for such places anyhow.

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Hear My Body Talk

Olivia Newton-John’s prospects began to unravel as soon as she imagined Grease as a psychic road map for her own career. So good thing LeAnn Rimes had a surrogate actress playing out her reverse-Sweet Home Alabama fantasies, lest she figure Coyote Ugly to be a documentary. That film’s centerpiece, “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” might have been the fourth-best song on an ’80s Laura Branigan album, yet it repositioned Rimes, a reformed pubescent Pasty Cline reincarnation, alongside the lascivious image of Maxim cover girls cavorting for the crowd, PG-13 style, at a rowdy downtown bar.

Rimes being a sturdy Mississippi girl, her gyrating was limited to a closing cameo where she struts through the song her on-screen alter ego spent the entire film pouring her soul out to write—oops, sorry for spoiling the end. It was the ideal setup for a universe where any glory American Idol champ Kelly Clarkson is under the Simon Cowell-induced delusion could be ahead of her was already traversed by Sheena Easton a couple decades ago.

It’s not like LeAnn wasn’t yodeling out loud for Prince’s sugar-walled intervention when she pounced upon “Purple Rain” in 1988; consider that this is the same artist who, at age 14, broke the bank with an album called Unchained Melody: The Early Years, packaged like a tacky bargain-bin disc assembled by an exploitative ex-manager—who, at that age, is most likely to be your dad as well. From there, we get the emancipation subplot that takes us, within the space of five years, from You Light Up My Life—Inspirational Songs to Rimes sporting a dozen flavas of lingerie in the booklet for Twisted Angel. All young marrieds are doing boudoir photography these days, y’know.

But then, Mike Curb isn’t seeking to groom the next Neko Case. It’s more a matter of filling the niche left by Christina Aguilera’s decision to skank out. Whether or not the rhythmic similarities of Rimes’s assertive chug-a-lug single “Life Goes On” to Nick Carter’s bewildered “Help Me” were written in the stars, she’s handily won said derby on pop radio. Maybe it’s the result of sharing Coyote Ugly soundtrack album space with EMF’s “Unbelievable” and Snap!’s “The Power”—to say nothing of “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”—but Twisted Angel is an early-early-’90s throwback in the vein of Taylor Dayne, when the pop agenda demanded a product solid enough to spin off two years of singles. It’s also a more gratifying listen than any Mariah compilation you could burn.

Sure, the hip-hop inflections are pure aerobics studio stuff. “Tic Toc” is Rimes’s attempt at a “Je T’Aime,” and comes off nowhere near as preposterous as a post-adolescence Debbie Gibson yanking such a chain, since this is a woman with a husband after all. Same goes for the languid “Review My Kisses,” irresistible because Faith Hill is too damn old to get away with such submissive expressions. Never mind that “Suddenly” is but a sumptuous uptempo rewrite of an ancient Billy Ocean ballad—at least in “Damn,” when Rimes devotes three and a half minutes to ruminating over the meaning of the title, her pronunciation is devoid of any Sophie B. Hawkins-like exasperation. It might also be the only country-styled moment on the album.

The terrific streak of tracks culminates in “You Made Me Find Myself,” a throwback to when Rimes sounded mighty precocious crooning “How Do I Live”—even if LeAnn’s was packaged as a gospel number, the concurrent Trisha Yearwood version packed enough carnal longing to assert otherwise. Now, when Rimes is belting out “I used to breathe you/I used to need you/I used to hang on every word that you say,” one is prompted to reach for the liner notes to check if God is still first on her thank-you list. ([S]he is.) Dad and hubby are there, too, but if Twisted Angel mastermind Desmond Child swung that way, maybe he’d be best to appraise Rimes’s smooching skills—his production on the Kelly Clarkson single can’t hold a scented candle to this.

Then again, Rimes didn’t cut her teeth on microwaved Aretha Franklin remakes; she was smothering herself in “Me and Bobby McGee” before she was old enough to vote. Twisted Angel‘s album-closing title tune is a barn burner where LeAnn, born in 1982, boasts of how Daddy brought her up on the Rolling Stones—hey, “Harlem Shuffle” and “Mixed Emotions” were bound to influence someone someday. Just call her angel of the morning after the night before.

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Gamma Gamma Hey

A Newsweek cover story last month branded them “Gamma Girls”—the allegedly emerging social class of female teenagers who aren’t meanies yet are unconcerned with being popular. They get good grades, play sports, and shun social deviancy in an effort to get life right the first time. Anyway, if adulthood is just high school with money, it would seem that these Gammas best get accommodated by the music business. After all, if this burgeoning target demographic considers experimenting with sex and drugs so unseemly, maybe they feel the same about downloading.

Proof that Gamma Girls might be a genuine movement can be found in the current hit parade—they have names like Michelle, Vanessa, and Avril. All with straight manes, flat faces, and, most of all, an air of terminal uncertainty. A blueprint of sorts had already been provided by Nelly Furtado, who carved out a radio-ready niche as a fanciful coffeehouse refugee who gets so giddy at the fact that you’re paying her any attention whatsoever, it seems downright perverse to think that she might have any carnal desires beyond being like a bird, hanging out with Missy Elliott, and giving Portugal a World Cup theme song. She projects nothing that might compel any dudes to speak of hooking up with her. The bare midriff isn’t meant to tease, any more than an exposed earlobe.

Despite the best efforts a decade ago to package Juliana Hatfield into something more than Evan Dando’s virginal enabler, there has never been a culture of performers like this before, because there had never been that damn Britney Spears to get the dialectic started. For lyrical fodder, Pink might milk her indifference to being pigeonholed, but her name is not Susan—she’s still filed under Pink. You can’t switch your personal prototype in The Breakfast Club from Molly Ringwald to Ally Sheedy and not alienate the vast expanse that rests between. That’s where these three creatures have stumbled into the picture.

Because, even if you are a high school girl too concerned with impressing a college admissions officer to grapple with emotion, at least you understand devotion. That is Michelle Branch’s cuddliest commodity—on “All You Wanted,” her biggest and most recent hit off a year-old album, this Arizona 18-year-old offers to save you and take you away from here. Yet the offer sounds mighty tentative, since she actually wants you to show her the way. If only the boys her age could muster more than mumbling propositions punctuated by the occasional shrug. Indeed, there are no delusions of romance on The Spirit Room. One ditty is called “I’d Rather Be in Love,” but darned if she anticipates it happening anytime soon. Based on her initial crop of songs, Branch should keep plugging away at being mistaken for Todd Rundgren’s daughter. The day she kisses a girl, her career will be all over.

More cathartic yearning comes from Vanessa Carlton, if only because “A Thousand Miles” beckons the listener to thrust along by playing the air string section. At the piano, Carlton postures like Susan Dey from a dysfunctional Partridge Family. Her dewy vocals suggest she’d rather be fixated on the Dewey decimal system—she oughta know that The Celestine Prophecy is at number 823.09—than staring down Fiona Apple comparisons. But even a 21-year-old librarian type from Pennsylvania needs to let her hair down: Be Not Nobody‘s pinnacle, “Prince”—where she moans about being “willing and able to come” is to its namesake what “Oh Sheila” was to recent Brooks & Dunn collaborator Sheila E. Too bad Carlton succumbs to covering “Paint It Black” in a vain campaign to invoke brooding. Is she goth or not? Who knows? She’s just an ex-ballerina too adept at getting lost in herself to worry about anybody else’s dumb-assed feelings.

Avril Lavigne is easier to please in “Complicated”—at 17, she doesn’t want to be frustrated, nor will she settle for being sedated. To her pubescent constituency-in-waiting, Let Go might as well be channeling Edgar Allan Poe and John Bonham—even if she’s actually more like the resurrection of Poe and Tracy Bonham. Presumably, the shadow cast by Alanis Morrisette has just started to fade in affable Avril’s hometown of Napanee, Ontario. Once the wailing gets out of the way, she manages to sound like the long-awaited hybrid of Suzi Quatro and Stacey Q. Seems that L.A. Reid told her she’d be a pop star if she kept three baby-faced male bandmates at close range—thus helping facilitate a tomboy image that will endure until the day Avril turns into Gwen Stefani, bemoaning the rock star boyfriend who refuses to knock her up. For now, Lavigne is extolling the virtues of being out with the out crowd. It’s the kind of conceit that cheerleaders just don’t understand, and sufficient reassurance for Gamma Girls to stay the course. In the end, Avril gets away with purring, “I’m naked around you/And it feels so right,” simply because her clothes ain’t going nowhere.

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Metal Gets Sentimental

This summer, Break the Cycle (Flip/Elektra) made Staind the first metal band in a decade to score a chart-topping disc purely on the coattails of melancholic anthems. Yet the real cycle-breaker, in terms of restoring the displaced legacy of sentimental radio-ready loud rock, is “Hanging by a Moment” by Lifehouse. After all, it’s Lifehouse’s Jason Wade who gloats about falling even more in love with you, letting go of all he’s held onto. And with that proclamation, the coast was clear for the time-honored theme of relationship politics to return to a steady slew of hit three-chord choruses for the first time since the diabolical wallop Nirvana wrought. (Hell, even mid-’90s sensitive guys like Collective Soul and Live and Candlebox and Dishwalla felt the need to be profound.)

Lifehouse‘s secret weapon might be incorporating traces of that long-lost corporate rock essential: good backing vocals. Never mind that their first hit owes a hefty debt to “All Apologies”; Wade personifies postgrunge. As the first famous arena anthem songwriter born in the ’80s, he became old enough to drink this summer, but is hardly a candidate to join A.J. McLean in rehab. Rather, Wade is an unabashed Christian whose pulpit has a pout (although, sorry girls, he’s married), yet his stentorian singing never catches a hook to match the insistence of “Hanging by a Moment.” Drowned in dour child-of-divorce indulgences, No Name Face (DreamWorks) is digestible due only to those supporting vocal strains from band manager Jude Cole, himself once a precocious hand for two late-’70s one-hit wonders: the Records and Moon Martin. As for Wade, his pool of memorable fist-pumpers may get deeper in time—but then, Eddie Money never bothered making legendary albums, either.

Besides, sometimes it takes a second try before you can figure out what to fill an entire disc with. Eve 6‘s Horrorscope (RCA), released last summer to mass indifference, is mostly a mutation of Oingo Boingo’s “Weird Science” and Flesh for Lulu’s “I Go Crazy”—theme songs from John Hughes teen flicks that didn’t star Molly Ringwald. Resident redheaded dork Max Collins staggers away from the Green Day-without-the-snot of Eve 6’s then-still-teen debut, only to find that the Fixx is in. And while gratuitous cuss words and stock misogyny might be blamed on the blustering boogie, it all pivots around the belated orchestrated smash “Here’s to the Night,” whose bittersweet slink suddenly brands Eve 6 as purposeful. It’s “Every Breath You Take” without the stalker subtext, “Missing You” by John Waite minus the world-weary psychodrama, and probably Billy Idol’s motivation for a remake of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in 2001. But Horrorscope is all about Generation X getting trampled down—what’s gotten played out in the Goo Goo Dolls’ wretched caress becomes charming when it’s groped by Eve 6’s slimy tentacles.

It’s preferable to the arduous arrogance of the exasperating Train, whose ubiquitous dirge “Drops of Jupiter” caws like three kinds of Crowes: Black, Counting, and Cameron. Yet if there’s any fictional construct that Train best emulate on their sophomore album, it’s not Stillwater, but Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines; overall, Drops of Jupiter (Aware/Columbia) resembles an innocuous venture from a lesser member of the Eagles. Stripped of string sections, Train can’t be bothered to soar, paddling instead through jazzy time signatures lest you question their, uh, integrity. It sheds light on what a cynical ploy “Drops of Jupiter” is—as if being the only track meriting liner-note lyrics didn’t provide proof. Because being miffed at the flighty chick who spurns his soy latte for a Milky Way was anguish for singer Pat Monahan, he needs to tussle with bandmates who’d sooner launch into the refrain from the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” than tolerate his moaning. Otherwise, the biggest revelation on Drops of Jupiter is that its epic-or-bust title tune is a mere 4:20 long.

Meanwhile, nonchalance is what drives Fuel‘s infectious pop crossover strum, “Bad Day,” whose protagonist is perplexed over his muse’s perpetual PMS. Once voted most likely to wither away with the rest of the bubblegrunge latecomers, Fuel managed to transcend their anonymity by reveling in it—”Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” became a radio staple because of Brett Scallions’s willingness to be a doubting Rob Thomas. Consequently, the band’s snarling sound takes on a whiff of nostalgic dissonance, which turns Something Like Human (550 Music/Epic) into more than a beeline for the golden age of power ballads. Instead, it compensates for clumsy late-career efforts of Dokken and Cinderella to adjust after the hair tide had fallen. “Bad Day,” especially, successfully elucidates whatever R.E.M. struggled to telegraph when they tackled Lou Gramm’s “Midnight Blue.” It’s alternative rock as roots music.

Staind, however, hit paydirt by playing the oldest card in the deck: adolescent alienation. Which isn’t to say Break the Cycle is The Catcher in the Rye for century 21—man of constant sorrow Aaron Lewis must feel some duty to patron Fred Durst’s penchant for strident stuff-breaking. But Lewis, the fattest and baldest sensitive troubadour since Christopher Cross, requires a wide berth of atmosphere in order to emote. Otherwise, he’s suffocated from shouldering the burden of belligerence for a nation of youth sequestered behind locked bedroom doors, even starting one song “To my mother, to my father/It’s your son or it’s your daughter,” covering all the bases of blame.

There would be no expectations for Staind were it not for the video of their frontman warbling “Outside” before a stadium campfire as Durst croaks along, and the obvious fact that Lewis’s head is the ideal canvas for sweat beads to trickle down. Yet while his barren confessional “It’s Been a While” has vaulted Break the Cycle into a sphere that hasn’t evolved since the days of Guns N’ Roses, Staind’s abundant bleakness is hardly the aftermath of a debauched existence. Instead, it’s a symptom of always being on the outside looking in, forever uneasy on the eyes. And in the end, Aaron Lewis knows the last thing a square peg wants is someone who’s willing to sing harmonies.

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Father Figures

Carson Daly could stroll unnoticed down any sidewalk in MTV-free Canada, so it figures a band that seems created in his image assembled itself in Vancouver, lacking all afflictions of prefab sprout. SoulDecision have already outpaced other would-be new wavers-cum-rank TRL-ers BBMak and Nine Days, and in their second hit, “Ooh It’s Kinda Crazy,” frontman Trevor Guthrie rails against the plastic people of the universe wasting his time, but he ain’t too petulant to beg. Its video depicts the trio using feeble tactics like fake mustaches seemingly inspired by the biker from the Village People to fake out rabid stalkers.

The pervading influence on the group’s No One Does It Better, though, is Wham! And if George Michael’s last stab at pop pastry, “Fastlove,” was a doughnut, then “Ooh It’s Kinda Crazy” supplants Michael’s coquettish cream with doughy standoffishness. It must be a close call to Teen People cover boy Carson’s own outlook—why else would he let Jennifer Love Hewitt run off with that space cadet Rich from LFO, then pledge devotion to the girl playing Melody in the Josie and the Pussycats movie?

Like all loyal Canadians, soulDecision are more about fence-sitting than face-sitting. In their previous single, “Faded,” despite the Brad Pitt-ish Guthrie’s frisky determination to make moves, a rent-a-rapper named Thrust intercepts the group’s Night at the Roxbury swagger with a drenched-down echo of the Notorious B.I.G. rap from 112’s “Only You.” This not only explains why the likes of Young M.C. and Rob Base view the Great White North as a safe haven for comebacks, it reveals that no matter how lecherous they aspire to be, soulDecision are sympathetic figures. Pushing (if not past) 30, they’re coming to grips with complacent masculinity after running dry of adolescent urges, thus shedding light on what elusive big-brother boy- band figures like Kevin Backstreet or Chris ‘N Sync feel behind their vacantly forlorn stares.

For soulDecision, coming of age in the pre-tween era means pasty British grins from 1983-84 rather than later Teddy Riley textures turned their cranks. But just as Wham! made a putative claim to black American influence by covering the Miracles, the Isley Brothers, and Was (Not Was), sD show their own roots by sampling the Pet Shop Boys’ “We All Feel Better in the Dark” as bedding for a track too vapid to make even Neil Tennant squeal. And George Michael was subverting the Wham! image from the start by releasing goopy singles under his own name. Frankly, if soulDecision had been molded by outside Svengalis, their libidos would have benefited from more ambiguity.

More boastful of their manipulation—and, in turn, less reliant on recycled ideas—are TRL heartthrobs Evan and Jaron Lowenstein, who give top credit to executive producer T-Bone Burnett. Burnett’s mass- market track record—revolving around albums by his wife, former Christian pop singer Sam Phillips—has been spotty, but now he’s scored with these Orthodox Jew twin brothers. “Crazy for This Girl” leads doleful cello accompaniment into a neurotic self-analysis about being smitten by an oblivious yenta who can drown out traffic with her speaking voice, and culminates in a piano denouement that sounds like Evan and Jaron sprinting back to her.

What Wham! are to soulDecision, Jackson Browne—minus anti-Cold War sentiments, El Salvador, and Daryl Hannah—is to Evan and Jaron. Their self-titled CD is literally the sound of lawyers in love, alluringly original enough not to alarm the copyright kind. Sure, the twin siblings from Atlanta hark back to an era when Hooters connoted accordions rather than chicken wings. But even after their false start in 1998 in Jimmy Buffett’s stable, E&J provide the ideal antidote to five-guys-named-Nick fatigue with an album that accelerates toward a swell froth. The Lowenstein twins have transcended the eternal teen idol stigma felt by Frankie-and-Fabian crooners, a pandemic that prompted Rick Nelson to write “Garden Party.” Never mind the music made by Rick’s own twin sons—after all, Evan and Jaron have way more sensible manes.

Plus, they offer high hopes and even higher cheekbones, along with the kind of self-effacement Jakob Dylan is no longer qualified to fake (at least Adam Duritz stopped trying so hard). A plaintive reminder of our dire need to refill the ark of sensitive-male songwriters—particularly ones that aren’t trying to reincarnate Nick Drake or Tim (or Jeff) Buckley—even if it’s accomplished two by two. Most refreshing about Evan and Jaron compared to the tsunami of boy-band aestheticians is how, in the rollicking “Done Hangin’ on Maybe,” the pair expressly confess to being emotionally impaired unless alcohol is helping them out. Presumably, only after downing four cups of wine at their Passover seder could they have shown you the shape of their heart.

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Like, Zoiks!

“What Would Shaggy Do?” bracelets have met with a surge in demand, forcing all production lines to add a third shift; emergency rooms are being flooded with a sudden outbreak of red-handedness; Home Depot is reporting a record number of calls for advice on how exactly one goes about hammering nails into the bathroom floor.

Yes, the reverberations of “It Wasn’t Me,” where Flatbush-bred ragga-rapper Shaggy imparts profligate wisdom to Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent, went from saturating Hawaiian radio last summer to sleeper-hit status through the fall. Most improbably of all, Shaggy’s fifth album, Hotshot, spent all of January nipping at the Soundscan tally of Beatles 1. Well, little did the Fab Four know it, but the career kiss-off B side to “Let It Be” would have the most seminal resonance for their nearest 2001 rival. The guttural growling at the tail end of “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” was a portent of Shaggy’s prime vocal technique.

Then again, we were all in phase in our dancehall days—or at least for the early-’90s spell when reggae 45 bins were raided for the next exponent of feckless party rap. The movement was quarterbacked by Shabba Ranks, paired with winsome crooners like Maxi Priest to give a silky sheen that offset exertions of stoic patois in a formula redolent of Johnny Cymbal’s 1963 “Mr. Bass Man.” The unfettered article registered a few crossovers—Mad Cobra’s coital incantations on “Flex” (rhymes with “time to have sex”), for instance—but Darrin “Snow” O’Brien’s tongue-twisting “Informer” (the first huge hit of Bill Clinton’s presidency) pillaged any North American groundswell. Ini Kamoze’s listless five-years-old “Here Comes the Hotstepper” was dusted off for a chart dash in 1995—probably the only No. 1 song where the artist boasts he’s a “murderer” 29 times while managing to sound cuddly. Still, as a top 40 device at least, a onetime contender like Super Cat was reduced to helping Sugar Ray sound more like Sublime.

Right around Snow’s bank-breaking, though, PFC Orville “Shaggy” Burrell spent weekend leave from his Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, military base exploiting interest in rough-hewn sides he’d laid down before taking off for Desert Storm. In the summer of 1993, “Oh Carolina” had Shaggy pairing the theme from Peter Gunn with ancient rocksteady wordplay to create a track out of time. It could have wedged snugly between “Dinner With Drac” and “The Witch Doctor” on a cutout bin collection of ’50s novelty tunes—lest that be mistaken for the makings of a career. “Boombastic” reprised “Oh Carolina” with a King Floyd sample, but Shaggy’s fast track to cruise ship lounge act was most exacerbated through covering “In the Summertime,” “Piece of My Heart,” and even adding lyrics to “Green Onions.”

As a block-partying eunuch, Shaggy ran out of condiments quick. So when he resurfaced on the soundtrack to How Stella Got Her Groove Back, with the Rose Royce “Ooh Boy” chorus brought to a moaning boil over six minutes by a refreshingly ephemeral Janet Jackson, Shaggy unleashed his libidinous bent. “Luv Me, Luv Me” appears on Hotshot with Janet replaced by surrogate Samantha Cole, and with its vamp severely truncated. Regardless, Hotshot leaks Jackson family values all over—the album’s unspectacular first single was a “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” retread, designating Shaggy as the harbinger of mambo potion number nine. Mercifully, past the three Jam & Lewis productions, the album’s vocal accomplices are more germane to Jermaine.

While Hotshot opens with Shaggy’s swaggering vow that he could “discombobulate your parts,” the sum of his own amounts to a downmarket Wyclef Jean, with a vague scent of Stockholm. Yet it all serves to make Ricardo Ducent’s entreaties for advice that much more arresting—the upright backing track on “It Wasn’t Me” sounds like a karaoke version of itself. Shaggy’s whacked-out perspective on RikRok’s indiscretions (“To be a true player you have to know how to play/If she say you’re not convince her, say you’re gay”) meets with absolute perplexity (“I’ve been listening to your reasoning/It makes no sense at all”). Absurdly enough, RikRok doesn’t get more indignant in the process. Great criminal lawyers have come up with more unscrupulous reasoning than Shaggy’s idea for an alibi (“Whenever you should see her make the gigolo flex/As funny as it be by you it’s not that complex”). Ducent, however, buckles under in four minutes (“You may think you’re a player, but you’re completely lost”). But wait—who had the marks on his shoulder to start with?

The narrative gets more convoluted than Fight Club; could the lack of a bellicose exchange mean that Shaggy and RikRok are meant to be the same person? We might have to wait for the DVD commentary track. Although, if Shaggy is such a twerp, how should his sincerity be taken on the follow-up single? Particularly when it is “Angel of the Morning” set to the riff from Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” interspersed with appreciation for she who stuck through Shaggy’s incarceration—the same Shaggy rebuked by a pal moronic enough to forget he gave his girl an extra key.

Well, being caught red-handed didn’t hurt Jesse Jackson, whose withdrawal from public life after his love-child revelation lasted all of 60 hours. When sales of Hotshot trail off, future prospects for Shaggy could be reflected in Snow, who recently reengineered himself into a cross between Joni Mitchell and Angela’s Ashes. Or if this Shaggy needs future career counseling, perhaps he can turn to a source that can offer similarly garbled advice about any dilemma, yet somehow knows the right way of every unpleasant situation: What would Scooby-Doo do?


Shaggy plays the Hammerstein Ballroom February 14.

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Stinkonia

Not for a long time has a long mane signified rebellion, but cascading tresses at the very least once helped to camouflage a certain naïveté among young men who made rock ‘n’ roll. In spite of its postcubist goatees and slew of cryptic tattoos, the menace of new metal—a/k/a the sound of young America slamming its bedroom doors—doesn’t seem a whole lot more diabolical than spring break: Close-cropped hairstyles expose the baby faces beneath. And while Fred Durst has been furrowing his brow since Woodstock ’99, striving to beat down all those pluckier competitors, his callow new call-to-arms, “My Generation,” sounds coated with mildew. The anthem makes Limp Bizkit—three years into their recording career—sound less likely to incite teen insurgency than the Who were as late as 1982.

OK, perhaps a 12-syllable album title needn’t automatically point to a profound piece of art. Durst, however, did foreshadow a fresh dimension on last summer’s sinuous commission for Mission: Impossible 2. “Take a Look Around” exposed him as more neurotic than numskulled, equal parts 2Pac and Public Image Ltd., struggling to unshackle himself from the straitjacket he’d sewn. Although the M:I2 theme was nothing the rhythm section of U2 couldn’t slap together in an afternoon, Durst was apparently primed to wrap up his reign as the pied piper of hooliganism. But much as his guru Ben Stiller (“Everything and more than I expected,” read the new album’s liner notes, “you are a major inspiration to me and a wonderful person”) needs to be typecast as a bumbling suitor to have a hit, Durst’s own flirting with disaster has since returned to a state of reckless disregard for what comes after.

So, the first fusillade on Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water is supposedly pointed at Trent Reznor, dragged into the TRL death-match for smashing Durst’s red-capped mug in effigy during last year’s inconsequential Nine Inch Nails vidclip for “Starfuckers Inc.” But in fact, this agitated-opening rout, “Hot Dog,” sounds more like a Bloodhound Gang outtake (“If I say fuck two more times/That’s 46 fucks in this fucked up rhyme”) than the sort of bottle-rubbing brawn a broad like Christina Aguilera needs. All of Durst’s braying about being picked on, backed by players who think funk describes a smell better than a sound, proves self-deprecation isn’t bred well in Jacksonville. Pariah status hasn’t boosted his libido one bit—female advances would be better spent on Rob Halford. If his heart was being thrown into the blender during days of “Nookie,” it is now in the process of being minced by the Iron Chef.

Compared to the postcarnal carnival of Significant Other, the he-said-she-said bullshit hardly factors on Chocolate Starfish—Durst fleetingly ponders finding his potential soul mate on “The One,” although with no greater intensity than a glassy-eyed strip club patron. But neutered nuances aside, Limp Bizkit don’t resist generating at least one of the sort of chorus-driven kicks for which Salt-N-Pepa could once be counted on: “Rollin’ ” has its mettle tested in its bonus “Urban Assault Vehicle” remix, where Method Man and Redman reprise their gallant appearances on “N 2 Gether Now” alongside thrustmaster DMX, whose dissonance outcrunches the Kentucky-fried discord of the original version. It exemplifies how Durst works better as a marauding toastmaster than a bellowing bandleader. The closest Limp Bizkit come to cohesive five-piece synergy is “Livin’ It Up,” at least until you realize that the rowdy backing vocals, lifted from “Life in the Fast Lane” by the Eagles, are actually sampled. (A timely shout-out to Don Henley, too—recently sued for allegedly whacking a female fan on the noggin with his maraca.)

Moreover, the Chocolate Starfish tracks that do ascend from Limp Bizkit’s cesspool are both duets. “Getcha Groove On” features Xzibit in an MC battle flecked with delectable Loverboy keyboards, ideal drapery for Durst’s crackerjacked rap. And after the album plunges into migraine-laden desolation for its excruciating final lap, Scott Weiland surfaces to provide crooning accompaniment to guitarist Wes Borland’s prog-rock elegies. Much as with recent pairings of Mariah and Whitney, or Barbra and Celine, they forget to carve out a tune, instead playing a morbid game of who can pull off the more hysterical Alice in Chains imitation.

On the whole, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water feels like an interminable groan, a harried hustle toward obsolescence. Rather than creating a cathartic requiem for, say, the impending dotcom depression, this turgid non-effort doesn’t even live up to the mookish reputation refuted with such salacious fervor on “Take a Look Around.” For his part, Durst has no illusions left to use; besides, another of his Hollywood buddies, Mark Wahlberg, packed it in after two albums with the Funky Bunch—and never got promoted to vice presidency at Interscope for his troubles, either. If Durst wants to make a shrewd executive move, he’ll get his own band dropped from the label, and soon.

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Sylvia’s Mother’s Grandkids

When they struck the Hot 100 bell with “One Week,” Barenaked Ladies secured their position as genuinely subversive participants in the mass media, right alongside Marshall McLuhan and SCTV. Like their fellow members of that Toronto-based trinity, BNL mastered the lost art of keeping a secret by deftly selling a discarded discourse on American junk culture back to America. In a lightning-speed era where the analysis of a trend can strike quicker than the thunder of any phenomenon itself, the Canadian quintet long ago calculated that music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebels. Welcome to the new frontier of genuine college rock.

Its release perfectly timed for dorm rotation, their new Maroon makes no pretense to high-shticking. Besides, BNL asserted themselves as baggy-shorted sing-along savants out of the gate—their moronic canon, like “If I Had $1000000” and “Be My Yoko Ono,” was perfected live years before the release of 1992’s debut album, Gordon. In fact, given their initial homeland triumphs as Guess Who-sized buffoons, Maroon is BNL’s fourth refutation of their image as a one-note avalanche of pasty-faced whimsy. They had better have gotten better at justifying their bewildering appeal by putting on a parade of apparent emotional depth.

During live performances, BNL’s engagingly smug banter is interspersed with ponderous ballads—when bespectacled Steven Page launches into his reflective mode, he might as well be lip-synching Andy Kaufman-style to scratchy Mario Lanza records. Perhaps the only thing that keeps the hordes from hurtling toward the beer concessions is that so many BNL fans have always hovered beneath drinking age. Their audiences are old enough to grasp the barbed and wired witticisms, yet find considerable empathy in a fellow fratboy’s slim campfire songs about the tribulations of staying true.

While the group initially reserved this contemplative state for musings about the music business—”Box Set,” “Brian Wilson,” and “New Kid (on the Block)” were all on Gordon—Page and his strumming lieutenant, Ed Robertson, have been married with children since at least their mid twenties. If their initial batch of wistful indulgences was written with anticipation of Jonathan Richman being reflected in the mirror, what was actually staring back risked becoming more akin to “Butterfly Kisses.”

Throughout Maroon, though, producer Don Was mercifully dispenses with mawkishness in favor of a theatrical approach tailored for arena consumption. While a comparable popularity pinnacle once prompted Michael Stipe to snidely mock Lou Gramm by covering “Midnight Blue,” BNL channel Foreigner outright on “Falling for the First Time.” The song deals sincerely with being a wide-eyed tyke from a parental perspective—ideal for a tween movie soundtrack. And Maroon‘s opening tunes are built around hand claps (“Too Little Too Late”) and party-in-the-background noise (“Never Do Anything”), all rolled out with enough earnestness to transcend any white-man’s-overbite shimmying such distressing ditties might inspire.

Page’s relationship-centered abstractions aside, finally hitting pay dirt with 1998’s hip-hop-gibberish “One Week” means it’s incumbent upon BNL to remain, uh, quirky. The task falls to morose Robertson for the single, “Pinch Me,” which rides its dreary beatbox backing with a trite condemnation of frivolous fast-food nihilism—only to reward album buyers with a sumptuous psychedelic coda lopped off the video version. Yet, what with liner notes quoting “Maroon” from Ken Nordine’s mid-’60s word-jazz album Colors, the Ladies are less belated hippies than inveterate beatniks. “Sell Sell Sell” ravishes consumer culture—imagining what Rage Against the Machine would sound like if they had a member who knew how to play glockenspiel—replete with dastardly ’50s show tune flourishes. Roll over Tom Lehrer, and tell Stan Freberg the news.

Such operatic conceits allow BNL to stride beyond their humble beginnings as dorky buskers—because his shower-stall tenor can be a bludgeoning imposition to the uninitiated, Page shimmers best when he gets doused with melodramatic atmosphere. “Conventioneers” delicately ponders the philandering antics that swirl around a ballroom full of stockbrokers, “Off the Hook” spins a lurid yarn, “Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” enacts a blood-spattered plunge. All are cloaked in cocktail shmaltz—yet ultimately deliver rapturous storytelling.

The status of the Barenaked frontmen as 30-year-old family guys has secured their ability to cultivate, without any hint of condescension, an exuberant following. Despite its listless slinking, the Maroon centerpiece, “Baby Seat,” is a motivational anthem that wryly advocates unadulterated adulthood. Deceptiveness of this sort can make drawing any stylistic precedents a tough task. For example, in the ’70s, Dr. Hook first conquered the charts rendering sinister Shel Silverstein lyrics, then went scampering toward saccharine sentiment—somehow, Barenaked Ladies straddle both dimensions at once. But then, most of their fans were probably conceived to the strains of Dr. Hook’s “Sharing the Night Together.”