Down On the Upside

For headbanger careerists like Metallica and Soundgarden, heavy-metal angst can present some real artistic problems when all those bad vibes and bad-ass guitar riffs start sounding like the same old bitch-and-boogie. But as their latest albums indicate, Metallica knows this and has done something about it, while Soundgarden seems oblivious to their creative dry rot. Metallica figured it all out after close to ten years of writing and rewriting the speed-metal songbook with mid-Eighties landmarks such as Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. After hitting the self-parody peak in 1988 with the monstrously indulgent ...And Justice for All, Metallica re-emerged three years later with an eponymous album that offered a streamlined and more accessible, but no less assaulting, version of the San Francisco band's vigorous sound. A critical and commercial success, Metallica managed to piss off legions of the band's hair-slinging fans, but it rocked with a vibrant and new kind of bone-breaking intensity.

Zeppelin/Sabbath acolytes and Seattle-grunge superkings Soundgarden found their big-hit groove two years back with the breakthrough release Superunknown, a damn fine album and a fine-tuned version of '91's Badmotorfinger, which was a tighter version of '89's Louder Than Love, which improved slightly on their first recordings for Sub Pop and SST. While every Soundgarden album has bettered its predecessor, Down On the Upside is a plodding and tiresome reiteration of the sonic and psychic themes of Superunknown that talks loud but says nothing you haven't heard 'em say before.

Clocking in at nearly seventy minutes, the thing seems to go on forever. Even on its best cuts -- "Tighter & Tighter," "Blow Up the Outside World" -- Upside never offers any new variation on their ferocious if tedious attack. Chris Cornell's garden-variety grumblings of alienation, anger, and disillusionment are delivered in his usual piercing wail; Kim Thayil's guitar riffs tool along a path scorched out many years earlier by Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi; and the bass-drums combo of Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron follows in pile-driving unison. Down On the Upside is a big, mean rocker, sure, but also a superfluous one.

Meanwhile, Metallica continues to experiment. Load, their sixth studio longplayer, moves the band ever further from the dense, mathematical arrangements of yore. Throughout the disc's 78 minutes, Metallica explores pseudo-country ("Mama Said"), minimalist punk ("Ain't My Bitch"), and the old-school swagger of primo B.O.C. ("Cure"). Granted, the themes on Load remain mostly the same, from the don't-fuck-with-me admonishment of "2 X 4" to the pair of anti-drug rants ("Bleeding Me," "The House That Jack Built") to "Wasting My Hate," a prototypical blast of brooding melancholy from vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield. Despite these reiterations, Load broadens Metallica's -- and metal's -- sonic vocabulary while Soundgarden merely repeats the unnecessary.

-- John Floyd

Lyle Lovett
The Road to Ensenada

I lived in Texas for three years, during which time I attended country music concerts galore, purchased a gen-yu-wine leather pair of Tony Lamas, and judged a chili-cookin' contest. Thus, I feel qualified to offer the following two observations:

(1) Texans are assholes
(2) But they make great songwriters
Robert Earl Keen. Jimmy Dale Gilmore. Joe Ely. Willie Nelson. Butch Hancock. And, now that you mention it, Lyle Lovett. See, Lyle was raised up in Klein, outside Houston, a fact you might not know if you only listened to his last couple of records. He's been a little out of his element these last few years, Lyle has. Starring in movies. Sporting Armani suits. Marrying what's-her-name.

On The Road to Ensenada, his sixth album, Lyle wears his state loyalties like a shiny marshal's badge. From the jaunty opening strains of "Don't Touch My Hat" ("Well, you can have my girl/But don't touch my hat") to the closing croon of "The Girl in the Corner," this is an album as big, brash, and full of good-natured shit as any other Lone Star Lothario has ever cut. "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" a sumptuous slice of Texas swing with flourishes of horn and squalling fiddle, pretty much says it all. Even more enjoyable is the boogie-woogie braggadocio of "Long Tall Texan," with scratchy harmony vocals by Randy Newman, of all people. Lyle's knack for melding genres remains keen, "Her First Mistake" standing as Exhibit A: This is a country lament set to a bossa nova beat, a long, loose piece of real estate that gets to where it's going with syncopated grace.

Sure, there's a few losers here: "Promises" is a bleak little number that packs all the emotional wallop of a missing-child milk carton, while "I Can't Love You Anymore" slips by like a stifled burp. But the overall quality can hardly be disputed. Gone are the ostentatious gospel arrangements of 1992's Joshua Judges Ruth and the cutesy filler that stocked so much of 1994's I Love Everybody. In their place, Lyle has returned to the country roots that dignified his first three records, and speaking for all us Texans, honorary and otherwise, I'd like to welcome Lyle home. Stick around for a while, boy. The place suits you.

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